The basic set-up for Justified is depressingly familiar: A maverick cop (or, in this case, deputy marshal) who goes his own way at the expense of friendship and family life (his ex-wife is now living happily with another man while he struggles to move on) unwillingly returns to the small town where he was raised (because he got in trouble for his maverick ways in the big city) and begins to clean it up with his own brand of tough justice. In Justified, that justice often ends up being doled out in a shootout – old-fashioned Western style – because Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens (played by Timothy Oliphant) has something of a cowboy fixation. And, like all good Wild West heroes, he’s a simple man on the surface (priorities: honesty, justice, getting his rocks off) with a whole well of emotions (jealousy, self-doubt, guilt) bubbling underneath. So far, so cheesy.
But Justified is raised above the level of the vast majority of prime-time crime dross by the performance of Oliphant as Raylan Givens. He’s channeling Clint Eastwood and John Wayne alright, but updates the archetypal cowboy hero just enough to retain the ‘man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’ swagger while allowing for some depth of character and managing to convey a sense of a man out of time, slightly out of sync with the rhythm of the modern world. Oliphant chooses to play his numerous alone-with-the-villain scenes straight – avoiding what must have been a serious temptation to instill some knowing irony, given how many clichés are skirted – and the show is all the better for it. Givens is based on a character created by Elmore Leonard, and Oliphant brings a sense of that writer’s gritty realism to his role.
There’s nothing especially pioneering or challenging about Justified. You can see most of the plot developments coming a mile off, and – Oliphant aside – the quality of acting rarely pokes its head above the ‘adequate’ threshold. But if you’re looking for an hour of entertaining escapism, it works.