Justified has some Splainin to Do

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-

12 thoughts on “Justified has some Splainin to Do

  1. I know what you’re saying about the South – I am often frustrated by the arrogant, self-righteous, maturbatory attitudes people have towards it. If you said you hated poor, black, uneducated ghetto “niggers”, you’d be called a racist, and that’d be about right. Whereas if you said you hated white, uneducated, poor white “rednecks”, it might actually get you praise from people all over the country (Especially SOME New Englanders. I know there’s a particular war between some New Englanders and Southerners), and that’d be about wrong. It’s a trememndous double standard that angers me at times, I admit, and I’m not even from the South, but at the same time, it’s not what this show continues past the pilot, if it REALLY does in the pilot at all. I will say, listening to Graham Yost speak and watching his previous show, Boomtown, he seems like the least politically smug person there is, and one of the last television writers hoping to draw blood. As you watch the show, you will realize it shows people all over the map from the South, and how people in the show from the outside makes assumptions about the “white trash” folk there, and it definitely sympathizes with the Southern characters. Walton Goggins (Boyd) is from the South, and was worried the kind of attitude the show would carry with it toward Southern people- but honestly, if you give it more then 50 minutes, actually give it a sincere chance, you will see that it’s probably the most sympathetic show about Southern people out there. As for the coal line, I completely understand that, but I think – especially if you had read the short story this was based on – that you will really come to appreciate that kind of attitude that Raylan has about people in general. It is a trait that attracted the developer and showrunner, Graham Yost, to the Elmore Leonard story this is based on- how rarely people are entirely black and white, how they come to see other people they spend time with and get to know and like, despite their flaws as human beings. I think, if you watch the show, you will see how it runs entirely counter to what you saw – and I saw- the first time, although that wasn’t even really what turned me off to it*. I think you will probably come to appreciate the pilot in a whole different way as you see these themes unfold. There are one or two things – like the ending line, for example- that I would’ve taken out. “You’re the angriest man I ever met”. Graham Yost admitted on the commentary that he was not proud of that line when he wrote it, but he needed to sell it to FX. I will tell you right now that that doesn’t even come back and has nothing to do with the character, so do not get caught up in that. And while it may have been the line that sealed the deal for FX, it is also the line that made me hate (more than anything) the pilot and delayed my enjoyment of this tremendous show. While it may be a little over the top in certain ways, I think you’ll adjust to the rhythms of the show rather quickly, realizing that even those rhythms can be an art form as much as gritty realism (and not to mention it is slightly refined as the show progressed), and you will come to appreciate it, moreso than, dare I say, Breaking Bad.

    Anyway, I discovered this blog through a family member who showed me your posts about Breaking Bad (Richard). I find your blog to be pretty intelligent and funny, even if we disagree about Justified – for now!

    *You’ll see that in a second

  2. I didn’t want to go into too much detail since you haven’t seen the show yet, but a lot of your specific concerns wil be addressed as the show goes on.

  3. Oh yeah, haha I’d love to see a layered Nazi character. I know you can do a layered black gang character with prejudices of his own. The Wire is a great example of people like that. They’re not “good” people, exactly, but you can sympathize with them. Actually, I would even describe a couple of the characters from the wire in those circumstances, the lower-level dealers, as good people born into a bad situation (well, I guess what makes a person good could be a whole separate converstation, but not for now). The same logic should apply to Nazis, just from a logical standpoint. There are probably equivalants to those people who are good people, who might even attempt to shed their ways (and may or may not just because they have nowhere else to go, so to speak) but you’ll barely ever see it with white supremacist characters. But I do think even the pilot shows this with Boyd at the end, in terms of being able to sympathize, at least with Raylans relationship with him.

    As for going on the mission before the background check, I think Boyd went out there on that mission with full intention of killing him. I don’t find it to be a mistake of the writing. He didn’t really need him in particular to be there, he went there to kill two birds with one stone, as he already decided to kill him regardless of whether he checked out or not.

    Again, I would address some of the other specific complaints you have, but some of them wil be addressed in the show later on and so I think you need to see and judge for yourself if my perspecitive as a whole is….. “Justified” :)

  4. Thanks for stopping by, James – and I do appreciate you avoiding spoilers! The list of people I trust who recommend this show is long, so I will definitely be giving it some more time. I also appreciate you confirming that the pilot isn’t necessarily representative of the show. Pilots have it hard for exactly the reason you mentioned: they have to sell the show to studio execs whose priorities are often not aligned with those of their audiences (strangely). Sorry if my review came off harsh – but I saw what I saw. I’ll go at the rest of it with an open mind – no worries. I’ve seen enough great shows with shitty pilots that it won’t surprise me to be able to add this one to the list.

    As for the coal mining thing, I don’t doubt for a minute that there’s a bond among coal miners. The confrontations between coal mining unions and the feds are the stuff of legend, after all, and even without the historical facts it just seems like the kind of job that would inspire that kind of loyalty – I guess since it’s not entirely unlike a combat situation, you know? My complaint there wasn’t about the existence of such a bond (don’t doubt it for a minute), but more that, given that such a bond exists, I doubt if the feds would have assigned Raylan to that particular case. I can see the argument both ways, though. One could make the case that they assigned Raylan precisely because they’re hoping Boyd will listen to him in a way he wouldn’t to some Louisville-raised outsider.

    As for the matter of Boyd, one of my good friends assures me that Boyd is one of the more interesting characters he’s seen on TV in a while, I just need to give it time. So, I will. Certainly I like the actor (and although it has nothing to do with his acting skill, of course I warmed to him A LOT the moment you told me he was sticking up for the South!).

    I’ve seen the second episode since I wrote this and … I really have no opinion one way or the other. Fun times, nothing great, seemed mostly like a standalone, so I don’t have enough to say about it to “justify” (yuk, yuk – puns come to easy with this show!) a review.

  5. Oh, I did want to talk about your comments on Nazis. I think we’re absolutely on the same page there. It’s high time there were a layered Nazi character on the small screen – especially given how easy it is for me to imagine one. I knew several people in high school who exactly met your description: good people born into bad situations who latched onto fascist gangs out of frustration. Of course they’re part of the problem, and of course I can’t really condone their decisions, but I honestly don’t think it would hurt anything to tell one of their stories honestly.

    • I don’t wanna push, but I think you should watch Boomtown. Really good show. I prefer it over Justified if I’m being honest. It’s what even convinced me (and my borther) to keep watching Justified. DVDs are out of print now, but you can still find some used and unused ones online for really cheap prices. If not, then every episode is on youtube. It’s up to you, but my reccomendation would be to watch Boomtown, then watch Justified, since you’re only 2 episodes in.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPWpJX_n_HA

      • And the first season of Boomtown is only 18 episodes. Season 2 is only 6, though some would argue season 2 is not worth watching since they changed the show dramatically in a failed attempt to increase ratings.

        All these years later I still haven’t seen more than 15 minutes of season 2 (though I think I might finally watch it this summer), but Season 1 is very good.

        • Good to hear. Honestly wasn’t expecting you to watch it. It’s definitely Graham Yost’s best project, imo. If there’s an episode here or there you don’t like, keep with it, cause there’s so many great ones to compensate. Yeah, it’s one of the most under-rated shows ever. It doesn’t even have one of those annoying rabid online followings, like Firefly or Arrested Development or Freaks and Geeks have (although that might actually be a blessing, but it still serves to illustrate my point.) It has gotten some mention in the media ever since Justified came on. But it seems to be a mostly forgotten show, unfortunately. 11 years later and it still holds up.

        • Hey, just so you know, that guy on youtube is missing episode 14. If you continue to watch, I can send you that episode if you want. It is an important episode of the show you can’t skip.

  6. As most of the posters here have pointed out, no need to fret. It gets better. Think of it like this though, this show has actually gotten Emmy attention. I mean, actually think about that for a second. Sure, the Emmys aren’t necessarily to be taken all that seriously because it’s got problems. But they NEVER recognize southern based dramas(for the sake of the argument, I’m counting Kentucky as part of the south). Ever. Now, the Emmys could probably acknowledge it more considering it’s better than most of the shows that have won awards the past few years, but it’s worth noting that Justified is so excellent that its hard for the Emmys to look at it as “that redneck show”, which I’m sure plenty of people have thought it as such.

    But, the biggest thing here is that you’re basing your opinions of the characters based on what you expect. What you expect is veracity. Some kind of realism. Justified isn’t realistic. If it was realistic, Raylan wouldn’t exist within the show. If he did exist, he wouldn’t be the main character and he’d already be kicked out the Marshals based off how many people he’s shot throughout the series. In fact, he’d probably be kicked out halfway through season one. This show is based off the works of Elmore Leonard, who’s known for creating entertaining funny characters with very deadpan deliveries, who don’t know acknowledge the humor. A lot of people say he creates caricatures, but considering how entertaining his novels are, I’m inclined to disagree. Still, their views have some kind of truth to them. The Pilot episode is based off the short story, Fire In The Hole, which is probably why you find it underwhelming. For years, Leonard has said that if they were to make a show based around Raylan Givens, it’d be better if they did it starting from the short story, instead of the other two novels he’s featured, because there’s more potential for expanding the material. He was correct. Four seasons in and I’m actually pretty gobsmacked at where this show has gone. And I actually liked the Pilot episode(which by the way, I could argue objectively that it didn’t suck, but I won’t get into that here). The first episode is merely a launch pad into more interesting territory.

    I absolutely encourage you to stick with it(hopefully you already have, as I see this article was written a couple of months ago). The writing is absolutely fantastic. The acting is fantastic. Everything is pretty much fantastic. Once you get a handle on what type of show this is, a show that’s more entertaining than realistic, you’ll enjoy it.

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