Friday, April 1, 2011

JUSTIFIED: The Last Great Drama Standing

- In my last post, I talked about the rather unstable state of TV drama. On one hand, there are some amazing shows out there. On the other hand, some of the best are either soon-to-be-cancelled (Lights Out), or else perpetually on the brink (Fringe). Sure, AMC has had some amazing success with its trinity of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead - but even they have struggled to find that fourth big show (we'll see how The Killing does this weekend) to add to their lineup.

However, to me, the real rock of TV drama over the last several weeks has been JUSTIFIED. With critical acclaim and network-pleasing ratings (it's already been renewed for a Season 3 by FX), and a growing amount of buzz, Justified is just ultra-dependable week in and week out. To me, it sort of fills the void left in the absence of 24. Not to say that the shows are particularly similar, but like 24, Justified is just plain badass. And like 24, where a huge part of the show's appeal was its larger-than-life hero Jack Bauer, Justified has its own increasingly-iconic protagonist - Raylan Givens. As played by the great Timothy Olyphant, Raylan is a more nuanced character than Jack - he's laid back on the outside, though he's got plenty of bottled-up rage on the inside (his ex-wife Winona called him "the angriest man she'd ever met"). He's cool, confident, and a designated ladykiller - but he's also got family issues and is a definite trouble magnet. Olyphant seems to have gone under the radar of Emmy voters, but if he isn't nominated for Lead Actor at this year's show, there's something seriously wrong. In only a season and a half of Justified, he's turned Raylan Givens into TV's best and baddest hero.

But what's been a constant pleasure with Justified is how the show so seamlessly weaves together one-off crime stories with its overarching serialized storylines. Even Fringe tends to struggle with the balance of introducing compelling one-shot plotlines and characters while still advancing its mythology, but Fringe makes it look effortless. Season 1 saw Raylan faced with the growing crime empire of the wild Crowder clan. Raylan squared off with his old friend / nemesis Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins - just awesome - and should be a lock for a Best Supporting Actor nomination), and eventually found himself in an all-out war with Bo Crowder, the family patriarch. Now, in Season 2, Bo's been taken out of the game, though Boyd is still running around - supposedly reformed but definitely a loose cannon. Raylan has to keep an eye on him, but he's got bigger problems - namely, the fact that another clan of country criminals - the Bennetts - are making a power grab and seem intent on taking down anyone who stands in their way. Already, the Bennetts are a fascinating group of villains. Actress Margo Martindale is putting in absolutely phenomenal work as Mags Bennett, the matriarch and brains behind the operation. Mags is so compelling because she's sweet and motherly one minute, but absolutely ruthless and terrifying the next minute. Her matronly side is visible when she's around Loretta, a teenage orphan who Mags has taken in (unbeknownst to Loretta, Mags is the one who killed her dad). But Mags' ruthless, evil side is often evident when she interacts with her two hillbilly sons - one of who, Dickie (Lost's Jeremy Davies, great as always) has a checkered history with Raylan. In disciplining her two grown but simple-minded boys, Mags has already redefined the meaning of "tough love."

Meanwhile, Season 1 of Justified set up a pretty intriguing love triangle for Raylan. On one hand, Raylan has a complicated, on-again, off-again relationship with his smart-yet-slightly-icy ex-wife Winona. On the other hand, he's also had a pretty steamy relationship with Ava Crowder, a childhood friend who married into the nefarious Crowder family, and who, in Season 2, has formed a strange alliance of sorts with her late husband's brother, Boyd. Also, in recent weeks we've been introduced to Carol (Rebecca Creskoff), the no-nonsense, fiery-redhead woman in-charge of a mining company that's looking to set up shop in Raylan's turf, Harlan County. This puts Carol directly at odds with the Bennetts. Luckily, she's enlisted Boyd Crowder to serve as her personal bodyguard. At the same time, Raylan's been ordered by the court to help protect Carol from various threats made against her, meaning that Raylan and Boyd are, awkwardly, on the same team - at least for now.

All of this setup led to this week's brilliant episode of JUSTIFIED, "The Spoil," which saw all of these mounting tensions reach a climactic point, as Carol calls a local meeting to try to convince the residents of Harlan County that her mining company will be a good thing for the people of Harlan. The ensuing defense of Carol from her new pseudo-lackey, Boyd, was vintage Walton Goggins in full-on street-preacher mode. And the rebuttal, from Mags Bennett, was just awesome - intense as hell, Margo Martindale at the height of her powers (not to belabor a point - but geez, give her an Emmy!). Again, it was that mix of matronly sweetness (she invited the whole town to her house for a "whoop-de-doo" as a show of unity) with seething rage. Yikes -- this is a woman who you don't want to mess with.

And this latest drama with the Bennetts and the mining company is just one more layer added to a show overflowing with great characters and many slowly simmering subplots. There's Raylan's ongoing relationship with Winona - currently thrown into turmoil by her ill-advised crime that Raylan now has to cover up. There's Raylan's surrogate father, Art, his boss at the Marshall's office, and his actual father, Arlo - a crazed career criminal who's even more of a trouble magnet than his son. The show has really created this whole universe from which to draw inspiration from.

After several episodes, Season 2 of Justified has, I think, began to fire on all cylinders. There's a healthy mix of intrigue, romance, wit, humor, and good ol' fashioned southern-fried badassery. Some amazing, award-worthy performances. JUSTIFIED is, right now, TV's must-see drama.

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