The arrivals this week of “The Chicago Code” and “Justified” couldn’t have been timed better, and not just because these two excellent shows will cure even the worst cases of cabin fever.
As it happens, they both grapple with a dilemma that is suddenly on the minds of everyone who watches the news: whether it is better to keep the peace or to be on the right side of history.
Peacekeeping, as fans of FX’s “Justified” know by now, is something Raylan Givens does every time he reaches for his trusty sidearm. But in this second season of last year’s best new drama, Raylan is after a different kind of order and stability. It’s the kind of peace that’s possible only when you set down your weapon and do business with people who, by all rights, ought to be behind bars.
“Justified” fans are well-acquainted with the back story: Elmore Leonard, the dean of gritty crime novelists, introduced Givens as a character for our times, a deputy U.S. marshal from the hollers of Kentucky who heads off to Miami Beach to deliver his special brand of justice to the drug kingpins there, procedure be damned.
Leonard moved Raylan back home to Harlan County 10 years ago in the novella “Fire in the Hole. ” Raylan couldn’t turn around without bumping into someone with whom he had a morally tangled past. The story suggested myriad possibilities to Graham Yost, a writer of ‘90s blockbusters (“Speed,” “Broken Arrow”) who endeared himself to TV critics with his short-lived crime drama on NBC, “Boomtown.”
Such a character-rich and culturally specific premise rarely comes to TV, and Yost made sure it had a fighting chance: He took it to the edgiest network in basic cable.
John Landgraf, who was running FX, had already handled one adaptation of a Leonard character, “Karen Sisco,” which flopped for ABC. But the two vowed that this time things would be different, and so they are. Thanks in large part to an Emmy-worthy portrayal by Timothy Olyphant, who had previously smoldered in a cowboy hat on HBO’s “Deadwood,” the show quickly built a fan base that included the hard-to-please author. Leonard blessed the pilot and has actively promoted the show. He’s even reviving Raylan for a new novel in 2012.
To bring you up to speed, Season 1 ended with a standoff that had Raylan and local outlaw Boyd Crowder (played by the reliably wigged-out Walton Goggins) taking fire from emissaries of a Miami drug lord who had a history with them both. The two-minute-long gun battle — replayed at the beginning of Wednesday’s episode — was the climax of a grand story arc that had worked its way through the full season.
“Our audience really got caught up in the story in the last four episodes,” Yost said. “We’re going to get that big story going early on, pull out of it a little, and then come back into it.”
That story is wrapped around the ever-present coal industry in eastern Kentucky. For Season 2, Yost took a road trip to Lexington and Harlan County with some of his writers. Most of his team (all guys except for one) has network writing experience, and they’ll take cable, thank you very much.
Wendy Calhoun wrote for NBC’s underrated “Life,” a cop show bedeviled by the network’s demand that the story keep galloping along, even if it ruined the character being developed by the show’s star, Damian Lewis.
“When you’re working on a network procedural, it’s just so straightforward,” Calhoun said.
“Here it’s character-driven, and you can jump around from points of view.”
But another writer, Chris Provenazo, cautions against using the C-word with “Justified.”
“I came from the first season of ‘Mad Men,’ and that was almost strictly character-driven, no plot,” Provenazo said. “The challenge here is to not be a slave to plot but to introduce indelible characters and yet meet the necessities of the cop stuff.”
That’s not to say there won’t be plenty of scenes where people just spend three minutes unspooling some of the most entertaining dialogue on television today.
“There was a mandate from Graham from Day 1 that this was going to be an Elmore Leonard show,” writer Benjamin Cavell said, “and it would have to have that Elmore Leonard sound.”
The writers were up for a Writers Guild Award this weekend, but if they hit this season out of the park again, they might be able to claim some major hardware next fall at the Emmys.
“Justified” may have some competition for writing honors with “The Chicago Code,” which FX’s big sister Fox unveils two days before “Justified.” “Code” comes to us via producer Shawn Ryan, who single-handedly vaulted FX to the top tier of cable channels in 2003 with “The Shield.”
What’s so brilliant about “The Chicago Code” is that it’s essentially “The Shield” retold from the good guys’ point of view. You have your bad guy, but he’s powerful, so that makes him a good guy to anyone he helps or enables. And you have people who want to take him down, but because he’s president of the favor bank, you find yourself opening an account with him, just like those lowlifes he surrounds himself with.
You’d love to throw the whole sleazy bunch in the clink. But for now, you get in line and bide your time.
After “The Shield,” Ryan co-created his first network show, “The Unit,” for CBS and then toiled at “Lie to Me” on Fox. This network experience has served him well, as becomes clear from the opening scene of “The Chicago Code.” It’s a narrated flashback — one of those concessions to network storytelling that keeps the casual viewer from reaching for the remote — and it’s told from the viewpoint of our hero, Teresa Colvin (Jennifer Beals), newly minted superintendent of the Chicago PD.
Against a gorgeous lakefront view of the city we hear Beals say, “Growing up I witnessed firsthand the effects of the Chicago way.” Cut to a world-weary storekeeper, circa 1980, handing over cash from his vintage register to a parade of outstretched hands: city inspectors (ka-ching!), precinct bosses (ka-ching!), protection thugs (ka-ching!).
All those bribes, our hero tells us, “cost my father his store and my parents their marriage.” Now, as a motorcade pulls up smartly to City Hall and Colvin emerges, we hear her say, “Finally, I am in a position of power to do something about it.”
If that was what actually transpired on “The Chicago Code,” it would make for a very ordinary show. But Ryan’s use of unreliable narrators is one of several ways he imposes his cable sensibility on the network formula to great effect.
Another is his choice of villain: Ronin Gibbons (Delroy Lindo), fixer extraordinaire and a master of the city’s ethnic politics. In front of the cameras, he’s one part Al Sharpton, one part legendary South Side alderman “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak.
As we soon learn, Gibbons controls the police board that approved Colvin’s promotion, and the ties that bind them add a dimension to his character as well as hers. After all, if your connections help an ally do some good in the world, doesn’t that mean you’re doing good, too?
This shady reasoning may work for him (and us), but Colvin wants him out anyway. So she enlists a trustworthy cop she knows, Jarek Wysocki (Jason Clarke of Showtime’s “Brotherhood”). Lifelong Chicagoan that he is, he thinks she’s nuts to challenge the old order.
“I can’t fix the city’s plumbing, and neither can you,” he tells her.
“One toilet at a time, Detective,” Colvin fires back.
More than that would spoil the twists, turns and pleasures of this unexpectedly strong network drama.
So we return to “Justified” and find that for Season 2 it has reloaded with new story lines, characters and intrigues, not just for Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens but also for his boyhood friend turned nemesis, Boyd.
Despite trying to kill each other in the pilot, the two men became allies over the course of Season 1 and were on the same side in the crucial gun battle in last year’s finale. “Justified” creator Yost is well aware that Boyd and Raylan have, as they say in Middle East diplomacy, a special relationship. And he doesn’t want to abuse it. In practical terms, this means Boyd fades into the hills for a while as Raylan fraternizes with the new cast members.
But selling these early episodes short would be like underestimating Raylan’s reflexes. Yost and his writing team have created a rich new dynasty in the Bennetts, longtime Harlanites who avoid trouble with the law because, in their neck of the woods, they are the law.
Heading up the clan is matriarch Mags Bennett, played by the ever-versatile Margo Martindale, most recently seen in NBC’s “Mercy” and Showtime’s “Dexter.” Mags runs the convenience store, serves up a tasty apple-pie-flavored moonshine and grows the weed that keeps the family solvent. Without picking up a pistol, she is every bit as lethal as Crowder and his clan were last season.
So this sets up a very tantalizing future for the “Justified” viewer: Which of Raylan’s alliances will give him the most trouble? Will it be Mags, whom he knows from childhood and whose company he clearly enjoys? Will it be Boyd, who soon enough will come roaring back into the picture?
Or will it be the two women in Raylan’s life, including his former wife, Winona (Natalie Zea), who emerges from a roll in the sack with her ex and says, “Looking at your closet, one would think you were a simple man.”
Simple men don’t get things done in the real world. In “Justified” and “Chicago Code” we have two fictions that ring all too true, with compromised heroes for complicated times.
ON THE AIR
—“The Chicago Code” debuts at 9 p.m. EST Monday on Fox.
—Season 2 of “Justified” airs at 10 p.m. EST Wednesday on FX.