TV Highpoints and Lowpoints of 2010-2011… Number 3

High Point Number 3: Justified Comes of Age

Justified, which debuted in 2010, was a good show straight out of the gate, with Timothy Olyphant as US Marshal Raylan Givens instantly one of the most appealing lead characters on TV, and Wayne Goggins as Appalachian petty criminal Boyd Crowder one of the most compelling and complex supporting characters. But as so often happens with shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Buffy, The X-Files, Farscape, and many others, it was in the second season that Justified became something extraordinary.

The American television industry has been notorious for focusing on the “haves” in American life rather than the “have nots”. Nearly every show on broadcast television deals with the lives of people who are a bit better off than the majority of Americans. And shows that focus on the lower middle class, like the recently ended Friday Night Lights or the comedy classic Freaks and Geeks, are exceptions to the rule. Justified is likewise an exception, in this case not merely focusing on the lower middle class but also on the poor in one of the most economically blighted areas of the United States, the coal mining region of Eastern Kentucky.

Graham Yost’s series, based on stories written by Elmore Leonard, focuses on the fringe of what Greil Marcus has called “The Old Weird America”. Season 1 dealt largely with Raylan’s attempts to avoid being killed in retaliation for a man he had to shoot in Miami—a shooting that led to his transfer back to eastern Kentucky where he grew up—and with a local battle over who would control crystal-meth production.

As good as the first season, Season 2 represented a considerable leap forward, with both brilliantly written standalone episodes and ongoing arcs. Raylan jostles both a romance with his ex-wife, who becomes embroiled in potential legal troubles when she lifts money out of an evidence safe, and with changes brought about by a coal company trying to buy property rights from local landowners, with an Appalachian matriarch at the center of things. The latter was played by veteran character actor Margo Martindale, in the role of a lifetime. Both Olyphant and Goggins were outstanding, each garnering well-deserved Emmy nominations, but Martindale dominated the season in one of the finest performances by any actor during the entire 2010-2011 season. If she does not win Best Supporting Actress in a Drama at the Emmys, the awards will be completely lacking in credibility.

The tone of Season 2 was established in the very first episode, in a scene in which Martindale’s Mags Bennett murders a man. Instead of telling Mags that one of her employees is threatening to molest his daughter, he calls the police, which she views as an affront to her authority. As Mags shares a drink with him, the suspicion that she has poisoned him cuts across his face. She tells him, “It was already in the glass, not in the jar” and promises to raise his daughter as her own as he eases into unconsciousness.

But as great as Olyphant, Martindale, and Goggins are, my favorite scene of the season may have been in the episode “Blaze of Glory”, when Givens’s boss, Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), chases legendary but aging bank robber Frank Reasoner (veteran character actor Scott Wilson). Art’s aging knees makes it difficult for him to run down Reasoner, who is chronically dependent on an oxygen tank. Reasoner has played a lot of computer flying games in prison that he hopes will enable him to fly a single engine airplane he is trying to reach. Art, unwilling to shoot Reasoner, grabs the oxygen tank the bandit has abandoned and hobbles after him, knowing he will collapse before reaching the plane. It’s one of the most poignant, funny scenes one could ever hope to see. For neither the cop nor the thief is anything like a blaze of glory.

Justified is in the best tradition of F/X series like The Shield. Now that Olyphant and Goggins have both received the Emmy nominations they unquestionably deserved, one can only hope that the show itself will receive a similar nomination next season.

Lowpoint Number 3: The Cancellation of Terriers and The Chicago Code

Every year outstanding shows get cancelled, shows that should have been an ongoing part of our cultural landscape and whose absence makes our lives a little less rich. I’m still nursing a bit of pain and denial about losing shows like Veronica Mars, Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Dollhouse, and Caprica.

Apart from Caprica, the two shows this year I most hated to see end prematurely were two on which Shawn Ryan and Tim Minear served as executive producers and on which Minear served as show runner: Terriers and The Chicago Code.

Terriers was created by Ocean’s Eleven writer Ted Griffin and starred Dontal Logue and Michael Raymond-James as unlicensed private investigators. The twist is that Logue’s Hank Dolworth is an ex-cop and Raymond-James’s Britt Pollack is an ex-petty thief. The two make for one of the most delightful buddy pairings on TV, and were supported by a great cast. The show, like the teen detective series Veronica Mars, was set in the San Diego area, which gave it a somewhat different feel from most Hollywood cop shows. But it was quirky throughout. Dolworth’s ex-partner, for instance, played by Rockmond Dunbar, was a reformed chain smoker, but managed to survive only through the electric cigarette constantly dangling from his lips, thus undermining the traditional image of the tough cop. Sadly, no one watched and the show WAS not renewed.

I normally hate cop shows. I find room for the occasional exception, but The Shield, The Wire, Justified, Terriers and The Chicago Code pretty much exhaust all that I’ve enjoyed. What made Terriers so delightful was the weird niche in society that characters inhabited; with Hank trying to hold onto the little bit in life that he still had while Britt was trying to become more mainstream than he ever had been before, even hoping to marry his girlfriend Katie (The 4400’s Laura Allen). These were men who did not appear to have all that much to live for, yet for both, the stakes in life seemed so exceptionally high. I’ve rarely encountered characters on shows in whose lives I have become invested so completely, and the cancellation of Terriers has left a definite void.

The Chicago Code, in contrast, was not a show that pulled at me in quite the same way Terriers did, but it was engaging for other reasons. While Terriers was a great show right out of the gate, The Chicago Code felt like a show that needed more time to develop. But with Fox dedicated to talent shows that pull in gargantuan numbers of viewers, it has little patience with moderately successful scripted dramas. It would not have been especially surprising if it had been renewed. It already had a moderate viewership and it would not have been impossible for it to develop a larger fanbase in the future. In an ideal world, Fox would have cancelled the dying-before-our-eyes House M.D. and gambled on a show whose best days were ahead, but as we’ve often learned, this is not an ideal world. The ratings for Terriers were so weak that its renewal was deemed impossible even before it was cancelled, but The Chicago Code was one for which we had some hope.

What made me want the show to survive is partly that it was the only series in memory to be filmed entirely on location in Chicago, where I live. For some Chicagoans this led to an almost obsessive degree of nitpicking, as people tore into the show online when an east-west street just west of the Loop was identified as Harlem Avenue, a north-south street very far to the west, or a street in Old Town substituted for Granville. Trying to explain to people that shooting five miles further away was very expensive and therefore not something that a show on a tight budget could consider, was an exercise in futility. Weirdly, many Chicagoans refused to embrace the show that put their city on display more beautifully than any in memory.

Sure, the show took liberties. There’s corruption in Chicago, but not like the corruption that occurred on the show. The series did not show the racial tensions that are at the heart of much of the city’s strife, and among the 50 aldermen in Chicago, none of the African-American members wield the kind of power Delroy Lindo’s Ronin Gibbons did on the show. That kind of power is generally reserved for aging white dudes.

Still, the characters on the show were believable, the stories involving, and the city looked great. It’s a show that would, I believe, have become outstanding given time, but it turns out that the one thing it didn’t have was time.

Both series ended well, with complete resolution in the final episode. This is speculation on my part, but I believe the reason might lie with showrunner Tim Minear, who has been closely identified with Joss Whedon. He was co-creator with Whedon of Firefly and worked on both Angel (a show Shawn Ryan also worked on) and Dollhouse. Whedon had a philosophy about crafting season long arcs, and I suspect that this has rubbed off on Minear, though perhaps Ryan also shares this. Whedon’s shows have always been written as if the current season would be the last, driven by the assumption that it was unfair to viewers to be left with a season-ending cliffhanger that could leave the fans with a permanent sense of incompletion. As much as I love Thomas’s work, I’d have appreciated if he had chosen to end Season 3 of Veronica Mars with the narrative more or less wrapped up, instead of it hanging there like a gaping wound.

Minear is clearly of the philosophy that each season deserves a proper ending. One of his first showrunning gigs was Wonderfalls, and it views like a 13-episode movie, and is as a result far more satisfying than many shows that last for far longer. And both Terriers and The Chicago Code both end, though prematurely, with a deep feeling of satisfaction. It would be great if all showrunners and executive producers felt this much concern for fans and would adopt the practice of treating each season finalé as if it might also be the series finalé. Caprica similarly ended with a finalé that wraps up the series, though I suspect that in its case scenes were shot with the possibility of its cancellation.

Both Ryan and Minear will be back. Shawn Ryan has really had only one successful series in terms of ratings, but that was The Shield, and one hit like that will purchase a lot of credibility. Minear has had a depressingly large number of shows fail, but rarely because they weren’t good (I even liked Drive despite the inherent silliness of the concept). He has already been signed to serve as a Consulting Producer on Awake, one of the most anticipated series of the coming season, and as a writer-producer on the new Ryan Murphy and and Brad Falchuk (the dismal duo behind Glee) series American Horror Story. But frankly, I think Minear is too intelligent for network television, and I anticipate the day when he gets a chance to be in charge of a show on HBO, Showtime, or Starz.

Hopefully a year from now, one of my 2011-2012 Lowpoints will not be the cancellation of Awake and American Horror Story.