Based on a string of good-to-great reviews and some recommendations from friends, I picked up Justified. So far, I’ve seen the pilot. Pilots are often poor indicators of how well a show will turn out, and I hope that’s the case here, because based on what I saw, this show is massively overrated.
The plot is something like this. Raylan Givens is a badass US Marshal in Miami who guns down a suspect old west style just to prove what a badass he is, so they transfer him to exactly the part of eastern Kentucky he grew up in. One of his old coal mining buddies is getting into lots of trouble blowing stuff up for the local nazis, and Raylan is assigned to look after him. So, after some sidetracking, Raylan arranges a showdown with him at the buddy’s brother’s ex-(because-she-shots-him-)wife’s house where they replay the scene in Miami, minus the killing part. Raylan just puts him in the hospital because he can’t kill a man he dug coal with.
By the time the end credits roll, I had that same “I’m in the Twilight Zone” feeling I had after watching Serenity. So many otherwise reliable friends and reviewers liked this one (in fact, it’s completely unanimous) that I had to wonder whether there weren’t demons in the tube scrambling the images so that I watched a different show entirely. Because the show I saw was a well-produced, well-acted string of tired and intelligence-insulting cliches.
Let’s start with Raylan. He’s entirely too much of a badass to be believable. It’s the kind of character that Clint Eastwood should play – only in Eastwood’s best outings there’s either context (Dirty Harry) or the character is inhuman (A Fistful of Dollars, etc.). In this case it’s just gratuitous. The show opens with Raylan going to one of those dinner scenes with a mob boss where the mob boss is surprisingly cordial as a way of putting Raylan off guard – but of course Raylan stays steady. The purpose of this, as it turns out, is to goad the bad guy into pulling a gun on him so that Raylan, who’s the bestest shot ever, has an excuse to kill him. I guess the guy was evil but hard to prosecute – but I’m only deducing that from the fact that Raylan is clearly the hero of the show. Unlike in Dirty Harry, no one actually tells us why this guy is bad. Now, we do get one great moment out of the whole thing, which is where during the inquiry, Raylan refuses to play bullshit and simply says “He pulled first. I shot him.” I’m not above that; that was gratifying and fun. But the actual dinner scene was so cliche-ridden it felt like fanfic writers ticking every item off the list. It was more or less a replay of the vastly superior scene in True Romance where Clarence kills Drexl – with the critical difference being that in True Romance right up until Clarence pulls the trigger we really feel like he might have been pulled off balance by Drexl’s surprising confidence, that he’s losing the upper hand. Raylan, of course, is in control the whole time because this is apparently his normal M.O. Yawn.
Had it been just the one scene, that would have been one thing – but by the end of the hour and a half it feels like Raylan chases gun barrels the way dogs chase mail trucks. He’s constantly walking toward loaded guns and staring people down. Yes, there’s a nice escapist quality to that. We’d all like to be that guy. But for me, it crossed the believability threshold, and once I lose the ability to suspend my disbelief it isn’t fun anymore. And it really, really doesn’t help that Raylan speaks in a soft but gravely Clint Eastwood growl.
The other thing that I immediately didn’t like was Boyd, the bad guy former co-worker that Raylan is assigned to put in place. Noah assures me that Boyd turns into an interesting character as the show goes on, but here he’s a cartoon villain. We first see Boyd and sidekick on a mission to go blow up a federal building that’s under construction. They can’t do it because they haven’t been supplied with enough explosives (really, they only have a rocket launcher), so they go to a black church and blow that up instead. We later find out that the church was the “secondary,” but as the scene plays out it looks like a random attack that Boyd pulls off on a whim. His companion is new to Kentucky, having come in from Oklahoma (get it?) to blow shit up. Now, here’s where it all goes wrong. Right after they blow up the church, the companion (let’s call him Jared, ’cause that’s what the Justified wiki calls him) is worried that it was too impulsive, and that people will have recognized his van. And this is where it gets silly. Boyd has some legitimate questions for him – like why he thought they could blow up a federal building with only a rocket launcher, and whether his objections to the way they firebombed the black church don’t mask a lack of devotion to the cause. Boyd has a point: it squares pretty well with the way an undercover federal agent trying to infiltrate the organization (they’re nazis, btw) while doing as little collateral damage as possible would behave. Is Jared a cop? Evidently not, since Boyd’s friend Devil is looking into that and tells us that Jared checks out. Not, of course, before Boyd has already shot Jared in the back of the head on a whim. Nazi life is rough. The scene is so retarded I don’t know where to start. First of all, what the hell is Jared doing on this mission if they’re still in the process of running their background check? It’s not as though there’s a one-hour window in which a federal building has to be blown up, or else it just doesn’t work because the force shields snap back into place, or whatever. Devil has plenty of time to call in information on Jared, so why not do the mission after he’s cleared? More to the point, how did Jared end up in this group without solid references to begin with? Do people just walk off the street into Nazi Party headquarters, say “I wanna blow up a federal building,” and the Nazis say “sure kid, what’re you doin’ tonight?” Not to mention, if Boyd is the demolitions expert and Devil is the local nazi boss, why is Jared the one supplying this mission? And if Jared is the one supplying it, why did he have to come all the way from Oklahoma to hand equipment over to people he hardly knows and who don’t trust him? Don’t they have stuff to blow up where he comes from? But most of all what’s stupid about this is that Boyd can’t just wait to hear back from Devil. The point, of course, is to establish that Boyd is the “shoot first, ask questions later” type, but this just seems like a really clumsy way to do it. Of course, Jared checks out, and we’re meant to be impressed with how unemotional Boyd is about his mistake. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this scene in exacltly every other poorly-written good-guys-vs-bad-guys setup, and we’ve already asked ourselves why anyone volunteers for Evil if it’s staffed by people who like to kill their allies. Seeing it rehashed here is just so much hash.
Pretty much everything about the bad guys is irritating, actually. Boyd’s whole gang is filled with people we don’t care about. They’re just meatheads with tattoos; we’re given no indication there’s any more to them than that. This is why I always roll my eyes when nazis show up on screen – because they’re the last thing in Hollywood that’s allowed to be pure villain. Any other criminal motivation these days gets some context, which just makes it that much harder to believe that Nazis emerge from the Earth fully-formed and waiting to be shot. I get that the world isn’t ready for a layered nazi character – but that being the case, they really need to find some other villains because these are about as developed as Imperial Storm troopers (and their shooting is about as precise). The only way they could make it worse is to have a politically correct moment where Boyd paces back and forth in front of nazi flags and pictures of Hitler deliberately misinterpreting the Bible to justify his hatred of Jews. Since they’re evidently trying to leave no cliche unturned, they of course throw this scene in as well. It’s a nice touch that they make it clear that Boyd doesn’t believe a word of his own garbage – he just likes to blow things up. Fine. But then what about the henchmen? Do they believe in all this? Because they frankly don’t seem the types to get all that philosophical about stuff. So, Boyd’s bullshit is just pointless: he doesn’t believe it, and his henchmen will follow him with or without it. Meaning it’s really only there so that Hollywood liberals can have their stereotypes confirmed. Awesome.
There’s a side-plot – tangentially related to the main one – about a woman named Ava who’s married to Boyd’s brother and has just shot him (the brother) because she was tired of being beaten. Raylan is sent out to investigate, and – surprise, surprise – the woman has had the hots for him for years. You know, just in case you forgot that Raylan was a badass or something. Raylan sees an opportunity to catch Boyd doing something illegal – though I’m damned if I understand how this is supposed to work since Ava makes it clear that Boyd just wants to sleep with her, not kill her.
Given how by-the-book this show has been so far, there’s of course only one way this can end up, and that’s Raylan seated across from the table with Boyd drawing faster than Boyd, just like what happened in Miami. And to be honest, I can’t really remember how we got from here to there. There was something about Raylan’s hotel room being watched, and some nazis showing up to engage the cops protecting Raylan in a shootout. At some point Boyd shows up at Ava’s and has her call Raylan to come join them, and on the way over Raylan pulls some more badass stunts, and basically I simply don’t care, blah blah blah. Point being, Raylan ends up seated across the table from Boyd, and Boyd pulls a gun which gives Raylan an excuse to shoot. The moment when Raylan does shoot is the dumbest thing in the whole episode, and one of the dumber things I’ve seen on TV in a while. Raylan shoots Boyd in the stomach, and Ava wants to know why not in the heart? Well, Ava, and television viewing audience, that would probably be because in a quick draw scenario like this one doesn’t often have a lot of control over what one hits. That’s why pistol duels are more about nerves than anything – because in the split second you have to fire, your chances are actually pretty low of hitting your target. If they were high, no one would ever agree to a duel because the unscrupulous would always win (by firing before it’s time and killing their opponent because, hey, easy!). But rather than make that point and risk humanizing Raylan, the show opts for the most ridiculous thing it could possibly have done, which is to have Raylan explain that it’s their coal-digging bond. Which is wrong on two levels, really. Neither of those levels is my disbelief in some kind of Loretta Lynn code among coal miners, of course – that much seems reasonable. But if the bonds run that deep, we would expect the local feds to know about it, and to maybe not assign people who had “dug coal” with the target to their most difficult cases. That’s one level. The other is the clumsy way it’s handled. I mean for the love of God, people, it’s only an hour worth of television. Couldn’t you find some other place to sneak that in than right after Raylan’s pulled the trigger? It’s just pathetic. Practically anywhere else in the episode would have made that scene effective. What you can’t do is wait until after we’ve seen the thing to explain to us what we just saw. It’s insulting.
Then the coup de grace – Raylan is found sitting in the dark in his ex-wife’s (ex-girlfriend’s?) house in the middle of the night. Because breaking and entering is acceptable behavior for a US Marshal? Oh, right, forgot, badass. Actually, you know what, I DIDN’T forget, because this goram show’s been hammering me over the head with what a stud Raylan is since the film started rolling. So OF COURSE he’s sitting in his ex’s in the dark drinking beer, because there’s no more cliched way to establish Raylan as an alpha than making clear that he’s still number one to the woman he’s no longer with. Wunderbar.
Probably the worst thing about the whole setup, though, is that this pilot is America continuing its practice of avoiding its racism problem by pretending that racism only ever happens in the South. Yes, as a son of the Great State of North Carolina, I’m well aware that it’s problematic to include Kentucky in “The South,” but that’s not the point. The point is that the rest of the country, when confronted with someone with a twang and wide teeth, makes the assumption that the guy is a racist, and this show would appear to be capitalizing on that. Now, I have a kind of split opinion about this. On the one hand, the villians are all NAZIS, and of a pretty cartoonish variety. They’re fat, tattooed, stupid, violent, and lacking in any sort of character depth. It’s clear that this is just Hollywood indulging in the last remaining moustache-twirling villain it has left in its trump pile. It doesn’t help that there’s a token black woman on the force, and that our hero Raylan establishes his anti-racist bona fides early on in a throwaway line about Boyd being a “racist asshole.” Racism, per se, ain’t against the law, Marshal. On the other hand, there are some hopeful signs that they’re going to bring nuance to this. When talking to the minister of the black church that got firebombed, Raylan points out that people make all kinds of assumptions about him – and given that he lived in Miami with wearing a cowboy hat and with an unmistakable accent, we can believe him. It’s really, really nice to finally see some acknowledgement on the small screen that white rednecks are as much the victims of hasty generalizations as anyone. More to the point, the show is careful to establish that Boyd doesn’t believe a word of the political drivel he spouts – it’s all just kind of an excuse to blow shit up, cover for whatever personal issues really motivate him. So, it’s a mixed bag, and maybe it will turn out OK. But I am really tired at this point of The South playing Jesus to the rest of the country, exonerating everyone else for sins we all share. C’mon, peeps, Boston integrated its school system with MUCH more violence and MUCH later than any jurisdiction in the South, so we can really quit pretending that racism stops at the Maryland border, mkay?
So, bottom line: the pilot sucks donkey balls, and I’m sitting on a lot of cognitive dissonance between what I saw, and what was advertised. My gut reaction at this point is that this show is going nowhere and won’t turn out to be worth watching. Raylan is going to continue to be over-the-top awesome, Boyd will continue to be Snidely Whiplash, they’ll throw in some daddy issues and call it character depth, and it’ll lumber along like a zombie for 5 seasons. That said, lots of people I trust seem to like this, and there are some signs that things will get better, so I’ll give it at least a couple more episodes. I would LOVE to be proven wrong, because the production values are high, and there seems to be real acting talent on display, provided the writers can given them something better to do than this.
Overall Rating: C-