Every once in a while, there’s a match between an actor and a role that just clicks exactly into place. “Justified” is well-written and well-produced, so it would be good with any decent actor in its lead role. But the show got Timothy Olyphant for the role, and the match could not be any more perfect.
Olyphant, who’s probably best known for his work on “Deadwood,” plays another lawman in “Justified,” which premieres on FX Tuesday (March 16). Like Seth Bullock, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens wears a hat and doesn’t talk much unless he has something to say. But Givens is very much his own man, and as Olyphant plays him, impossible not to watch.
The series opens with Givens, cowboy hat and all, telling a man he had 24 hours to get out of town, and now his time is just about up. Except instead of a dusty main street in the old West, the confrontation takes place at a poolside cabana in a fancy hotel in Miami, where Givens works as a marshal. When the thing goes sideways, Givens is transferred to the eastern district of Kentucky, where he grew up and is still remembered by people on both sides of the law.
The show is based on an Elmore Leonard story (“Fire in the Hole”) that features Givens and was created by Graham Yost (“The Pacific,” “Boomtown”), who leans heavily on the story for Tuesday’s premiere but necessarily moves away from it in future episodes. Hollywood’s record in adapting the author’s material is iffy, to say the least, but “Justified” is far closer “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight” than it is to “Be Cool” and “Stick.”
Yost has said that when he was writing the pilot, he adopted a “WWED?” — What Would Elmore Do? — credo, and it shows. He uses a fair amount of Leonard’s dialogue in the pilot, and he and his fellow writers — Yost wrote the second episode and Chris Provenzano the third episode sent to critics — have an ear for Leonard’s economical style. It’s also a style that suits Olyphant to a T — Givens is not as tightly wound as some of the other characters Olyphant has played, but when he speaks, you lean in to listen to him.
Back in Kentucky, Givens works for his mentor in the marshal’s service, Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), who likes having Givens around even if he doesn’t quite know what to make of him. A couple of younger marshals, Tim (Jacob Pitts) and Rachel (Erica Tazel), fill out the understaffed office. More important to the story, though, are the people from Givens’ early life, including an ex (Natalie Zea of “Dirty Sexy Money”) and especially his boyhood friend Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins of “The Shield”), who’s now among the most wanted men in Kentucky.
The scenes between Givens and Crowder are kinetic, and you can sense the charge that Olyphant and Goggins get out of playing off one another. Whatever happens between these two probably won’t end well for either man, but the journey is going to be something.
Given that “Justified” has Leonard in its DNA, it’s also at times laugh-out-loud funny. In the third episode sent to critics, Alan Ruck (“Spin City”) plays a fugitive from Givens’ past whom Givens catches up with at the Mexican border; told there’s a sniper just on the Mexico side of the line, Ruck’s character drily notes, “That won’t be good for tourism.” It’s a great line, well delivered, and there are several more like it in the first few episodes.
FX has a pretty strong track record with its original series, but few of the shows it’s offered up have felt as fully formed right from the start as “Justified” does. It’s shooting to the top of my list of the best new series this season.
Photo credit: FX