Justified: What happens when you take a cop show out of the city?

In stepping away from established urban locales to the slightly shop-soiled countryside of Kentucky, Justified manages to change not just is aesthetic but also its characters and stories.

Justified is a strange show. At first I approached it cautiously, thinking that the return of Timothy Olyphant to the solid ground of playing a lawman in a big hat meant that it should be worth a peek. Between the leftover goodwill from Deadwood and the careful avoidance of his big screen appearances in Live Free Or Die Hard and Hitman I had enough reasons to think that it couldn’t be too bad. Worse case, I figured, it’s CSI: Hazzard County. It wasn’t. In fact it was very, very good. However it still felt like a guilty pleasure, the US Marshal, being reassigned to his backwater hometown, solving cases and shooting bad guys, enjoyable but surely never rising above that. It was not until season two I realised that actually, it wasn’t a mere guilty pleasure, nor was it merely good. It was great and it has remained so up to the time of writing without missing a beat.

Isolating the greatness of Justified is a tricky thing because on the surface many of the components are, perhaps fittingly for this series, old hat. The main character, Raylan Givens, is an archetypal maverick law enforcement officer with authority issues and the ability to shoot people before they shoot him. He is a US Marshal reluctantly sent back to his home town after causing trouble in Miami. He has an exasperated boss. He has problems with paperwork and the technicalities of cases. This is largely standard rebel lawman territory. His old friend from back in the day, Boyd Crowder, is now, predictably, a local criminal. Their dads worked together in the field of miscellaneous rural crime. They have history, and a shared interest in a woman, Ava Crowder, wife then killer of Bowman Crowder, Boyd’s brother.

This is of course a cheesier premise than a bag of Wotsits touring Wisconsin yet it works extremely well because Justified twists the formula in one key aspect - the setting. By the normal run of things your typical crime show is set in a city, and it doesn’t usually matter which. In stepping away from the established locales to the slightly shop-soiled countryside of Kentucky Justified manages to change not just is aesthetic but also its characters and stories.

Such are the strengths of the series that simply transplanting the standard criminal archetypes of a city to a rural district might have worked well enough for a time with Justified. The series is extremely well acted, with Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins as Raylan and Boyd both providing more than enough charisma in their roles to carry a series apiece and the action scenes are suitably tense yet inventive. However the show does more than simply swapping city blocks for trailer parks, and by doing so opens itself up to be something much more than another show about a lawman with a gun.

What we see in the Kentucky of Justified is a detailed and intricately drawn world, albeit one filmed in California. It is a region of clans, corruption, industry and crime which seems to have more in common with a divided medieval kingdom than a modern slice of the American south. We see an area of poverty and plenty, with vast wealth in narcotics and coal, but the majority of the locals living in little better than shacks. Of course I can’t speak to the realism of the show; I’ve never been closer to Kentucky than its Wikipedia page, but in a series with this richness and texture that doesn’t matter, if anything it is a benefit. The Harlan County of Justified is a character in itself and if I knew the real Harlan County, I’d probably just be annoyed at the unfair depiction of the people and the inflated murder rate. This miniature world, with its own economies, corruption and conflict is a world away from the big city and it gives the writers scope to roam. There is lawlessness to it all too. No legion of cops with armoured vehicles to patrol the streets, or many streets for that matter. Bodies get to go down the old mineshafts or into slurry pits and there’s not always somebody in earshot when the shooting starts.

The second element that a countrified setting brings to Justified is language. A typical American city where a typical American crime show might be filmed is a melting pot, characters gather from all around and accents and styles of talking can vary from one side of town to the next. In Justified the accents are more uniform which means that character speech patterns can be more clearly defined than merely observing who has what accent. For example Boyd speaks with verbosity and perspicacity such that I wonder if his dialogue is written in verse, while Dickie Bennett, an old acquaintance of his and Raylan’s from their school days, shares the wit but not the vocabulary or the charm. There is also a very strong feeling of amiability to these characters, an apologetic air about them when they indulge in unpleasant acts. Southern hospitality is alive and well in Harlan, even if two of the most likeable characters in the series start out as militant white supremacists.

Perhaps the greatest strength to the Harlan County location however lies in the villains it produces. The placement of the region along narcotic supply routes, real or imagined, means that a ready supply of professional criminals from outside can be wheeled in when needed. Meanwhile the hills and the hollows provide plenty of convincingly grubby and unhinged local troublemakers, often sporting truly epic hair. The backdrop of local industry being based on mining paints a convincing and familiar picture of a world in which young men have to choose between undignified and dangerous work versus a life of idleness, unemployment and crime.

This choice doesn’t account for all of the villains of course, with malevolent clan matriarch Mags Bennett being a highlight of the series in season two. The women of Justified seldom partake in the violence of the series but there is a hard streak to all of them, even if there is perhaps an over reliance on their need to be rescued as a plot device.

With Justified scheduled to wrap up after the end of next season (six), it will have had a good run and plenty of time to give itself a proper ending. Eulogising might seem premature but with the writing on the wall there’s really nothing left to do but settle in and enjoy the ride. While we may not see the likes of Justified again for a while, but hopefully it has shown TV writers and producers that the world doesn’t end at the city limits.

Timothy Olyphant in Justified.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Why a man soiling himself was one of my Olympic highlights

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline.

There used to be a rumour that a newspaper (now defunct) had in its possession some compromising photographs of the wife of a beloved TV entertainer (now dead) romancing a chihuahua. I mention this because I think John Inverdale must have a similar hold over BBC Sport bosses. How else does he get such great gigs? At the Olympics, if he wasn’t being corrected by Andy Murray about the existence of women, he was having water droplets “accidentally” shaken over him by a sour-faced Steve Redgrave as he aired out his umbrella.

Then again, perhaps Inverdale’s continued employment is the salt in the caramel, or the Tabasco in a Bloody Mary: a small irritant, designed to give a kick to what would otherwise be bland niceness shading into enforced cheeriness. The rest of the Olympic presenters (grumpy Sir Steve possibly excepted) were a bunch of lambs: the sweet Helen Skelton, and the even sweeter Mark Foster and Rebecca Adlington, hosting the swimming; Matt Baker from The One Show and Beth Tweddle doing the gymnastics; that poor bloke they put on the beach so that leery passers-by and lecherous drunken couples could get into his shot. With 306 events over 19 days, I felt as if Clare Balding had moved into my spare room, we were spending so much time together. (The fact I didn’t want to smash my screen every time she came on is proof that she’s worth every penny of her £500,000 salary.)

The time zone difference could have made these Olympics a washout for British viewers, but the BBC used its red-button technology sensibly, and the presenters (mostly) coped with pretending they didn’t know what was going to happen while hosting the highlight reels. Someone at New Broadcasting House even grew a pair as the first week went on and stopped news programmes from intruding on the medal action. Earlier in the week, viewers had been forced to hop from BBC1 to BBC4 to BBC2 to follow their favourite events, the change sometimes occurring at an inopportune moment.

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline. Unlike football, say, where true enjoyment requires memorising rafts of statistics and forming strong opinions about the transfer market, all Olympics coverage is designed for people who couldn’t tell one end of a derny bike from the other five minutes ago. Who really understands the rules of the omnium? Luckily, it turns out you don’t need to.

I thought I was going to hate the Olympics, which took place in the shadow of controversies over drug testing, the US swimmer Ryan Lochte’s faked robbery and Caster Semenya’s hormone levels. For all the guff about the international hand of friendship, the Games are a ruthless commercial enterprise, and one in which global inequalities are harshly self-evident. Are Americans just better athletes than the rest of the world? Clearly not. Money buys success. Could most of us, even given a trainer, dietician and acres of free time, qualify for any of these sports? No. Genetically, most of us are Morlocks compared to these people.

Nonetheless, all the natural (and artificial) advantages in the world can’t win you a gold medal if you sit on your sofa and eat Pringles all day. One of my favourite competitions was the gymnastics, where Simone Biles of the United States seemed to dominate effortlessly. Yes, being 4ft 8in clearly helps her – her shorter steps allow her to pack in more tumbles – but she’s still willing to do a somersault on a bar four inches wide. (The dangers of the discipline became clear when the French gymnast Samir Aït Saïd snapped his leg landing off the vault on the first day of qualifying rounds.) In the 50-kilometre race walk, Yohann Diniz pooed himself, collap­sed twice – and still finished in eighth place.

These are the Olympic moments I cherish. Usain Bolt makes it look too easy, which is boring. Without a narrative, sport is little more than a meaningless spectacle – a Michael Bay film or the latest Call of Duty. Luckily, Team GB seemed to heed the call for drama, delivering us a penalty shoot-out victory in the women’s hockey (and a team with a married couple in it); a comeback for Mo Farah after the allegations against his coach Alberto Salazar; and a surprising failure for Tom Daley in the 10-metre dive. We also got to see Laura Trott and Jason Kenny’s races through each other’s eyes.

In other words, bring on Tokyo 2020, so I can grouse about the money and the drugs and the inequality right up to the moment the first person shits themselves – and still finishes the race. Truly, human endeavour is a beautiful sight to behold. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser