Definitively: Justified

It is hard to make definitive statements about inherently subjective things. Wait, that’s not quite right, it should be hard to make definitive statements about subjective things like movies or TV. Obviously it isn’t hard for most people, they do it all the time (myself included) but more often than not they should
come with the caveat “in my opinion”. In my opinion Citizen Kane is not the greatest movie ever made, but many film buffs would disagree with me. Having said all of that (about the definitive statements, not the Citizen Kane thing) there are some things that we can say about a movie or TV show with absolute conviction. Here are five such things I can say about one of my favorite TV shows, that began its final season last night, Justified.

1. Season 2 Was Its Best Season

It feels like you can make this kind of statement about most TV shows. Season 6 is the best of the Sopranos. Season 5 of Breaking Bad. Season 4 of the wire. Day 4 of 24. Those are the seasons of those iconic shows that have won various online polls, but I don’t think I agree with any of them (Sopranos Season 1, The Wire Season 5, Breaking Bad Season 3, 24…who can remember, they all bleed together at this point). This goes back to my initial statement, subjective things are hard to definitive.

But…

There is no question or debate that Season 2 of Justified was the best this show has ever been or could ever be. Call it alchemy or magic or the stars simply aligning but Season 2 of Justified took an entertaining procedural about a US Marshall with an itchy trigger finger into an opera of violence and betrayal and family and old wounds that was impossible to take your eyes off of. As a whole Justified might fall short of shows like The Sopranos or The Wire or Breaking Bad but Season 2 can stand toe-to-toe with any season of any show.

2. Justified Would Be On The Mount Rushmore of Elmore Leonard Adaptations

26 of Elmore Leonard’s novels or short-stories have been adapted into movies or TV shows or both. Some have been good, some have been bad, few got it as “right” as Justified. Everything about the show feels like it came from Elmore Leonard, from the main character to the entirety of the supporting cast. Justified, like so much of what Leonard did, is a world where people get drawn into lives they don’t want, become players in plays they didn’t expect and find a way through in ways you don’t see coming and the difference between the good guys and the bad guys can feel thinner than a sheet of paper even when it is as plain as day. Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Justified and then you can quibble about Jackie Brown (my choice) or the original 3:10 to Yuma. That’s it, that is your top 4, your Mount Rushmore, end of story.

3. Timothy Olyphant Will Never Be This Good Again

That feels like I am taking a shot at the man, I’m not. I think Timothy Olyphant is amazing. Seth Bullock, to me, was every bit as important to making Deadwood a classic as Al Swerengen was. Olyphant did one of my favorite voice guest spots on Archer ever, he was terrific in GO and he made Hitman oddly watchable. I guess what I’m saying is I ride with Tim Olyphant. But much as John McLean was for Bruce Willis or Martin Riggs was for Mel Gibson or Tony Soprano was for James Galdolfini, Raylan Givens suits Olyphant so perfectly and he fits Raylan Givens that it seems impossible to imagine a better version. Raylan plays into all the things that Olyphant naturally has (charisma, good looks, etc.) and all the things he does as an actor (easy charm hiding deep seeded rage) that you literally can’t even see another actor playing the part. It is a rare thing for an actor to get a role this good that is this perfect for him, it is nearly impossible to imagine it happening for the same actor twice … of course, I likely would have written a nearly identical paragraph about Olyphant and Seth Bullock when Deadwood was coming to an end.

4. The Casting Department Had One Of The Highest Batting Averages in TV History

Justified takes place in Eastern Kentucky, it’s filmed outside of LA. You don’t need to have been through Kentucky to know that LA, or any part of California for that matter, looks NOTHING like coal mining country. It makes it all the more remarkable then that Justified feels like it has as defined a sense of location as any show on television. That feeling of being there is driven by a near flawless cavalcade of actors who all fit the world perfectly. Nick Searcy, Walton Goggins, Raymond Berry, Jere Burns, Natalie Zea (always better than she needs to be in the little roles she keeps getting)Damon Herriman, Jeremy Davies, Abby Miller, Patton Oswalt, Steve and Wood Harris, I could literally fill up a page listing the home runs they have hit with small characters and Margo Martindale, the Season 2 big bad, may be the best casting choice made in the last decade. The other secret weapon the casting department has employed is reuniting their star with some of his former Deadwood castmates, all of who have fit right in (I understand they tried to get Ian McShane but could never fit it in). It is actually that impeccable knack for casting that made the enormous miscasting of Michael Rapaport so glaring (note to casting directors, the most New York of New York actors cannot play a Florida swamp rat convincingly). Still, they are batting .900 or better over the course of the series.

5. Justified Will Always Be Remembered For What It Wasn’t More Than What It Was

What if’s scenarios are always fun. What if Justified and The Shield switched places? Justified would have come out in 2002. It would have been viewed as the cutting edge cable drama that benefitted The Shield through its initial run. Justified wouldn’t have lived in the shadow of Deadwood or had to compete with the brilliance of Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Justified would have been the show people pointed to with The Sopranos as the ‘new’ television. I don’t want to take anything away from The Shield, I show I very much liked, but its hard not to imagine Justified doing even more with the good fortune of that timing. Instead Justified came out in 2010. Breaking Bad was just getting its legs, Mad Men was humming, Sons of Anarchy was already an FX hit, the golden age of TV was in full swing and Justified always seemed to be sitting on the cusp of the GREAT shows, perpetually on critics top ten lists but never in there top five. More than anything though Justified seemed to never be able to break free of Deadwood, in part because they kept casting Deadwood actors. David Milch’s iconic western is an unfair measuring stick for any show, but when you have the same star playing a lawman again in what amounts to a modern western, well, I’m guessing Graham Yost (Executive Producer/Creator) and company knew Deadwood was always going to be there. Justified is the early 80’s Philadelphia 76ers, lost in the wake of Magic and Bird and the legend of what Dr. J had once been. Things happen that way sometimes, but those of us who watched Justified and enjoyed the entire ride will always remember it for everything that it was.