The fourth season of Justified gives us exactly what we want: much laconic tough-guy humor from Timothy Olyphant's U.S. marshal Raylan Givens, much grandiloquent nastiness from Walton Goggins' drug dealer Boyd Crowder, and much swift violence. The Western also gives us stuff we could not have foreseen: comedian Patton Oswalt playing a lawman as fidgety as Don Knotts' Barney Fife, and a supposedly charismatic preacher in Joe Mazzello whom I'm ambivalent about thus far. It seems the minds behind the show feel it's time to take some chances, and they're pursuing an admirably risky course.
Oswalt turns up as hapless constable Bob Sweeney, an enthusiastic incompetent I'm surprised we haven't met in the first three seasons, seeing as how he's a local and an old high school acquaintance of Raylan's and all. But Oswalt is welcome anyway, with his blustery boasts (''I'd've opened up a Costco-size can of whupass on 'em!'') and his link to what looks like this year's first major subplot. Hired to watch over Arlo Givens' (Raymond J. Barry) house while the man is in jail, Constable Bob interrupts a break-in that leads to the discovery of a mysterious ''Panamanian diplomatic pouch'' that is of interest to many, both criminal and law-abiding.
The other new story line involves snake-handling Preacher Billy, embodied by Mazzello, an actor known primarily as a good team player in big-cast productions like HBO's The Pacific. Everyone keeps saying how mesmerizing the character is, but so far I find him rather wan, especially compared with his marvelously creepy sister, played by True Blood's Lindsay Pulsipher. Billy, however, more than meets his match in Boyd, who believes the pastor is trying to move in on his local drug trade. The pair's Bible quote-off in the season's second episode is won by Boyd with holy decisiveness. In that episode we also learn more about the pasts of marshals Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel) and Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts), through casually informative dialogue. I suspect that executive producer Graham Yost (who wrote the season premiere) thinks it's time to fill in some details in the Justified universe, which carries the challenge of not revealing so much that the mystery is spoiled. While I'm on the topic of excess, veteran director Michael Dinner does a little too much swooping and diving camera work in the premiere, suggesting that by now he's a little bored and he wanted to (quite literally) shake things up a bit.
One reason Justified has always been so good is because of its rigorous less-is-more aesthetic, as handed down by its inspiration, the novels and short stories of Elmore Leonard. Thus, any doodad or curlicue added to the formula is immediately noticeable and subject to scrutiny. Between the squirrelly preacher and the sometimes-strained composition of select scenes, Justified looks to be merely going through a few growing pains. But it's nothing that can't and probably won't be resolved as the show goes deeper, and more assuredly, into its new season. B+