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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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue