Monday, May 2, 2011

Justified: Appointment Television

Justified, FX's brilliant show based on an Elmore Leonard short story, has only two rivals for best show of all time, The Sopranos and The Wire. Very good company tied together by a the common link—violence. Which, it's that surprising given that a recently, Harper's noted that eight of the ten most popular televisions shows feature corpses. Nothing fixates the human mind more than matters of life and death.

But while show violence in the three great shows, violence is ever present. Not only do the main characters live comfortably amongst the litter of spent shells, but they purposefully usher in the fear that accompanies violence. The shows' producers know that except for sex nothing engages a television audience more than fear and unlike their European counterparts Americans standards bodies are happy with bullets than breasts.

Tom Boswell, the great Washington Post sportswriter, once said there are two kinds of people, those who watch batting practice and those who don't. And the latter will never amount to anything, because if you don't pay attention to the little things in baseball, the game becomes a series of reactions to batted ball. Most people happily hours spend at baseball games, waiting for the reward of brief violence when bat strikes ball setting players in motion. They are missing the inner game.

Television is different than baseball. Its inner meaning sets the guidelines for the violence. Viewers, lured into a television show by the violence will not stay if the violence does not have a purpose, a greater meaning. Usually this gets played out in the cop procedure or detective shows, cops and robbers. In the days since the sets were in black and white, the good guy always won by the final credit. The hero cannot take the fall and gun fights only matter if you care who is left standing when the smoke clears.

But for good to exist, we need villains. Except for the flying nun, they don't set television shows in convents. Without the devil, God, or god, is a lonely and unnecessary creation. These days, sometimes it's the villains who are more interesting, more worthy of our attention.

Yes, Virginia we can love a villain, especially if we understand the why. In No Country for Old Men, Woody Harrelson says about the villain portrayed by Javier Bardem that he operates under his own code, one where lives are decided on a coin flip. Good bad guys are endlessly more fascinating than good good guys.

We loved Tony Soprano because we understood his fictional mobster code, and know that Tony understood it. The Sopranos worked as a show because it was always about the entire family's struggle to stay true to the duties that mobster code forced on them.

The Wire stopped being interesting to mass audiences when the villains became the nameless and faceless culture that gave rise to the drug lords, not the drug lords themselves. Woman openly wept when Idris Alba died. Evil needs a face we find.

On the face of it, Justified is driven by its lead character Marshall Raylan Givens, a good cop, fast on the draw and good with words. He once talked a convict into giving up a hostage in exchange for fried chicken and a shot of bourbon. Jim Beam is a big sponsor. But in truth, the show gets its direction from the supporting characters, who like Tony Soprano are family man and women, born into their lives, playing roles have been handed down through generations. There is very little room for improvising.

Families and cultures have their own gravity. In Justified, the pull of family is almost inescapable. Except for Raylan, the characters are defined by their birth rights.

Having gone to college and seen some of the world, or at least the U.S.A. before returning home to Harlan County, Kentucky, Raylan is at once an outsider and insider. He betrays a part of his heritage and disowns his father. That father is scheming and lawless scoundrel, aligned with Bo Crowder, the head of Harlan's biggest enterprise, manufacturing and distributing crystal meth. If that weren't enough for family entanglements, a young Raylan worked the coal mine with Bo's son Boyd, an explosives expert.

Towards the end, Rayland was willing to put a bullet in his father to prove to the world where he stood, though is father pulled first so Raylan was justified.

Boyd, on the other hand, returned to the house and eventually the bed of his dead brother's wife. The wife killed the brother by the way, and Boyd had always coveted his brother's wife. Yes, it's complicated, in that small town kind of way. It's actually complicated in a family way, but this isn't time to talk about the Givens generations old feud with the Bennetts, criminal rivals of the Crowders.

The show may be about Raylan, but Boyd drives the action. Boyd, a former white supremacist, tries the straight life, but no one quite believes his conversion to God or the pure life. In Season Two, Boyd does try to make an honest life, going back to the mines to work an honest day for honest pay, but nobody believes him, again. No matter how hard he tries, there is no path for redemption for Boyd. Resurrection perhaps.

Raylan shot and killed Bo in the original pilot episode. But fortunately, the reports of Boyd death were premature. Bo tested well with television audiences and the bullet to the heart didn't find any vital organs.

In a commentary on the same pilot episode, the producers claim that they show is driven by Raylan's anger, but I don't buy. It's driven by Raylan's sense of justice or duty to uphold the law, Boyd's attempt to escape from the bonds of the Crowder family and interplay between the two men. Boyd's scenes with Raylan during his redemption period are magical as both man verbally thrust and parry, like poker players skillfully slowplaying very good hands.

Philosophers and psychologist may debate if people can change over time. In the eyes of the writers of Justified, the answer is no. No matter how far we travel, when we come home we shed our clothes and play our roles. Raylan is an exception, but few of us can escape the pull of family.

What does it say about Leonard's writing that the network could create a whole series from one short story? It says that if you create compelling characters and put them in interesting situations, you have appointment television.

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