About 20 minutes into the first episode of Justified, a neo-Nazi walks uninvited into a Kentucky house. He is met by Timothy Olyphant as Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, who gives the wiry man with ”Heil Hitler” tattooed around his neck a hard stare.
”Who are you?” asks the punk, to Raylan in his suit and tie. ”The undertaker?”
”I might be undertakin’ a situation right here,” says Raylan softly. Pretty soon, someone has blood on his face, and it’s not Raylan.
Two things about this exchange. One: It comes straight from the 2001 Elmore Leonard novella, Fire in the Hole, on which this series is based. Two: I knew from this moment on that I’d kinda fallen in love with a new TV show.
Putting on his post-Deadwood cowboy hat, Olyphant is now a contemporary lawman — the original title for this series was Lawman, and maybe the FX network was afraid its core audience of Shield- and Sons of Anarchy-loving viewers might be put off by, y’know, something that sounds like a Western. But if you like those shows, you’ll like Justified.
Raylan, raised in a small coal-mining town, grew up with the man who becomes his nemesis: Boyd Crowder, a thieving, killing, spiritually inclined bigot played by one of The Shield’s finest, Walton Goggins. Each man takes the measure of the other, wondering how they arrived at such different stations in life. These are moments when two superb actors explore the area where machismo shades over into sensitivity.
Many of the producers behind Justified have worked on some of my favorite shows of the past decade, including Kidnapped, Karen Sisco (another Leonard-based project), Boomtown, and Robbery Homicide Division. What do they all have in common? They didn’t last long. But good work is good work, and in TV, creators of cult shows often end up making hits. (Look at Carlton Cuse, going from The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. to Lost.)
Olyphant is surrounded by a terrific supporting cast, including Dirty Sexy Money’s Natalie Zea as Raylan’s ex-wife and Nick Searcy (Deke Slayton in From the Earth to the Moon) as his deceptively cornpone boss.
But in the end, it comes down to hard stares and that combination of drawled amusement and sudden violence that make him so cool yet exciting. As Boyd says to our hero, ”I know you like to shoot bad people.” And damned if you don’t want to watch Raylan do that. A