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

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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