Justified: Series Premiere

A good drummer joke is hard to find. Raylen Givens (Timothy Olyphant) has one. “How can you tell there’s a bad drummer at your door?” he asks. “The knock speeds up.”

A deputy U.S. marshal, newly assigned to the Eastern Kentucky office, Raylen’s sharing with a criminal he’s just picked up, a guy who escaped during a gig with his bluegrass convict band. The joke is a brief acknowledgment of the men’s mutual respect, their understanding of the different sorts of work and hardship that have led them to their opposition. The joke’s also a sign that Justified has at least a couple of surprises up its sleeve, that it’s not only yet another cop show with a tall, too-clever lead set against brutal villains and dim bureaucrats.

That’s not to say that Justified, inspired by an Elmore Leonard novella, avoids cliché altogether. It does tend to love its sublimely self-confident hero, a quick draw and a smartass who nonetheless walks a sort of moral line that baffles his mostly rube-ish opponents. But the show offers other, pleasures that help to make up for what’s predictable, pleasures like that drummer joke, which tells you something about what Raylen knows and appreciates, as well as how he operates in a world where distinctions between good and bad are always mushy.

Raylen’s own mushiness is established in the series’ first scene. On a sunny morning in Miami, he sits down at a swanky outdoor restaurant with Buckley (Peter Greene, again haggard and haunted). They have a history, of course, which has culminated in a challenge: one of them is “going down.” You know which one it will be, even if you don’t anticipate exactly how or when. The violence is crisp, the camera angles elegant, and in a few moments, Raylen is reassigned to Kentucky — Harlan County, to be specific. He’s loathe to go, as it’s where he’s from, where he used to dig coal and run around a bit. This plot trick allows him to be both known and unknown, an outsider who’s also intimate with local customs and expectations.

In the pilot episode that airs on FX 16 March, Raylen must contend with his past in an especially explicit form, an old buddy named Boyd (Walton Goggins, so memorable as The Shield‘s Shane). Now blowing up churches with rocket launchers and living among Nazis and skinheads, Boyd resents Raylen’s return, and especially the fact that he doesn’t accept his current formulation of the world. Back when they were in the mines, at 19, Boyd reasons, they shared an antagonism to corporate and government oppression.

“Everything’s changed,” insists Boyd, as he and Raylen sit in the pews of the church he’s confiscated for his Nazi group home. “Mining’s changed, no more following a seam underground, it’s cheaper to take the tops off mountains and let the slag run down and ruin the creek. You remember the picket lines, the scabs and gun thugs? Whose side you think the government’s always been on, us or the people with money?” Raylen nods. So far, so historical. And then Boyd takes a next lurching step: “Who do you think controls that money? Who do you think wants to mongrelize the world?” Raylen shakes his head. Once Boyd starts in on the mud people and Biblical prophecy, Raylen calls him on it. “You like to get money and to blow shit up,” he says: this religious ranting is just a front. Boyd won’t answer, but instead curls his lip and makes a threat and one of them is going down. Again.

It’s true that Justified doesn’t offer much that’s new with regard to crimes and crime-solving, or really, with regard to Raylen’s internal struggles: he’s got to get over his lingering affection for his ex, now working as a court recorder and remarried, and contain his urge to sleep with busty blond Ava (Joelle Carter), who recently killed her abusive husband with a shotgun and is thus involved in an as-yet-unresolved murder case. He’s apt to show his insights into social arrangements and historical injustice, as well as systemic racism and misogyny, in brief and near-lyrical interactions with his occasional partner Rachel (Erica Tazel). And he’ll make mention of particular current events, as when he’s asking Deputy Marshal Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts), formerly a sniper with the U.S. Army Rangers outside Kandahar, how he’s able to keep focus on targets. Not that he gets an answer to this query either, and you’re getting the idea that not talking can be as compelling as talking in this show.

Such exchanges don’t especially move plot, but that’s to their credit. Raylen is less compelling when he’s shooting and driving than when he’s observing and listening. Or calling a kid with an attitude and a big nose bandage “Chinatown.” Raylen has jokes, pretty good ones. Maybe he’s got something else going on, too.

RATING 6 / 10