By Tressa Eckermann, Senior Staff Writer
Elmore Leonard is arguably one of the greatest American writers in history. His work has been adapted many times for both TV and the big screen. Some adaptations have been exceptionally good, such as “Jackie Brown” or “Out of Sight.” Others not so much, as was the case with the TV show “Karen Sisco” and the movie “The Big Bounce.”
When it was announced that FX would be adapting Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole” into a TV show to be called “Justified,” fans of his books were a little more than nervous. Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens is one of Leonard’s most well-written characters. It was hard to imagine how they would be able to find an actor who could walk-the-walk and talk-the-talk quite like the super cool Givens.
“Justified” is the story of Givens, a shoot-first-ask-questions-later, throwback-to-the-old-west U.S. Marshal. After shooting a man in Miami, he is sent back to his hometown in Kentucky, from which he fled when he was young (mostly to get away from his criminal father, Arlo). Harlan, his fictional hometown, is also the place where his ex-wife, Wynona (Natalie Zea, “Dirty, Sexy, Money”), lives with her new husband, and where his high school crush, Ava (Joelle Carter), lives. It’s also home to Boyd Crowder (“The Shields” Walton Goggins), his one-time coal mining friend who’s turned to a life of crime and white supremacy to also escape from his father.
Timothy Olyphant (“Deadwood,” “Live Free or Die Hard”) plays Givens. It’s a cliché to say “role of a lifetime” so I’ll just say that Olyphant is literally the only person on the planet who could play Givens the way that Leonard wrote him, and then bring just a little bit more to the role. From the top of his tan cowboy hat to the tips of his cowboy boots, Olyphant plays Givens with a calm and sarcastic edge that most can see is just a way to hide his anger. And goodness is he angry, or as his Wynona said to him at the end of the first episode: “Honestly Raylan, I think you’re the angriest man I’ve ever known.”
Olyphant’s been accused of being a one-note actor, but he’s proven, with shows like “Deadwood” and now with “Justified,” that all he needed was the right role. Leonard has said in interviews that he’s only seen two actors say his lines the way he heard them in his head when he wrote them – George Clooney in “Out of Sight,” and Olyphant. He plays Givens with a mix of rage and boyish, sarcastic charm.
Heck, he even walks perfectly. With his straight back and narrow gaze, you know this is a man who knows exactly what he’s capable of – all from that confident swagger.
In “The Shield,” Walton Goggins proved that he was easily the most underappreciated actor on TV. Boyd started out creepy and slid into a “reformed” man on a mission from God. The scenes between him and Givens have become a standout of the show, and with their newfound, albeit shaky alliance, we’re sure to see more of it.
The first season ended with a shootout involving Givens, Boyd and Ava, and some very angry gangsters from Miami with an odd alliance being formed between Boyd and Givens. The second season opened with a recount of the shootout and Givens in hot water with his Kentucky bosses. For now, the Miami storyline seems to be under wraps and Givens must now face taking down a dangerous Harlan family, led by a violent matriarch and her deranged sons.
What makes “Justified” work so well is the same thing that made other Leonard projects fail so miserably – the writing. Graham Yost, the creator of “Justified,” has said that the writers wear bracelets that read “W.W.E.D.” or “What would Elmore do?,” and though no one writes quite like Leonard with his fast-paced, deep understanding of his characters, the writers of “Justified” come the closest.
What we viewers are left with is a show full of rich characters, engaging stories and some of the best acting on TV. We might only be a few episodes into the second season, but it’s already plain to see that it’s going to stand up to the first stellar season, and it’s on the way to being one of the best shows on TV.