I was listening to an interview with Paul Thomas Anderson where he talked about the critical reception for The Master. He said there were some positive and some negative, but that what he appreciated about the response generally was that it didn’t follow the review formula. As he explained, the formula begins with a pithy one-two punch, designed to grab interest and set the tone. The bulk of the article would then be given over to describing the art product, with asides indicating some interpretive effort. The whole thing is then capped off with a round-up of judgment: go see it, or don’t go see it. The Master, he said, didn’t fit into a nice and tidy pigeon-hole of a film, and so the reviews couldn’t either.
So here’s my headline, one-two punch for Justified: it fits the review formula pretty good [sic]. It’s a slickly made, well acted, cop show that evades getting bogged down in any kind of procedural mess by adopting various veneers from the Western, including a quick-drawing Deputy Marshall in a 10-gallon hat. Summarizing the storyline for Season 1 could hardly be simpler – a good cop with rough methods returns to his home town, where he proceeds to stir up trouble – in a good cause, of course. The local crime-type guys don’t much care for him, and emerge from the woodwork to put paid to him, a strategy which clearly isn’t successful. And now my stinger, to adapt Chandler’s quote: this is a police procedural which has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
So, why bother watching it? Why bother to write about it?
I was prompted to watch it by the positive reviews of some staff from Aro Video. I can’t recall a time where they’ve lead me astray, and they’ve lead me to many gems I’d otherwise have missed. It hasn’t gotten the rave reviews of Breaking Bad, but it’s been solidly received by those with an interest. The most crucial good review in a way, was that Elmore Leonard got involved as an Executive Producer. He’s never been my favourite crime author, but I can’t remember a yarn of his I didn’t enjoy. To be fair, Justified was no exception to that.
That’s a good level of endorsement for a show whose first season definitely doesn’t push beyond the kinds of things I’d expect to see from the 1970s. Justified is the kind of solid, craftsman-like storytelling that will probably never go out of fashion. I expect that if we still have western civilisation in another 40 years, I’ll be watching the 2050s version of the same show, just holographically projected, or beamed directly into my brain. The reason is that it is a classic example of iconic storytelling. It has conjured from the (presumed) grave, the real honest-to-god Western hero derived from Gary Cooper or John Wayne and put him back on the screen. It’s very iconic nature is precisely why it is so easy to review – the consistency that makes it an iconic story also makes it easy to summarize, and hence, it’d be all too easy to be dismissive of the show based on our habits of dramatic thought.
The best way of tackling an iconic story analysis probably isn’t by breaking it down beat-by-beat, though my thesis certainly proved to my satisfaction that there’s a lot of useful thought to be gained by doing that. Iconic stories have always been most conveniently interpreted in meta-fictional terms: why is this story appealing? Thus, we have the general hypothesis of crime fiction as conservative, and dismissive of individual value compared to the health of society as a whole. Criminals are non-conformists, on the whole. A notion whose appeal is used to offer major critiques of changes happening to the Western world in the inter-war period, hence the popularity of the Golden Age detectives.
So, what strikes me most about Justified compared to other modern cop shows like The Shield or NCIS or CSI, is that murder happens, but is not the central concern of the show. The procedural beats are not about exploring the life of a victim and isolating a guilty party. They’re about honour, and justice. The society is infected with criminal corruption, which the lone honest and brave gunman exterminates, to bring law to the land. Instead of chains of evidence and deduction, we have man-to-man conversations about choosing to live well, or choosing to live poorly. In the whodunit, society is functional and the individual errs, in the Western, society is malformed, and the individual offers correction. Both are simple moralities, appealing to an audience that are fatigued by sifting through the murky arrangements of the modern world. Justified is the antidote for the utter exhaustion ushered in by The Wire.
As with all Iconic stories, its appeal rests substantially on the appeal of its characters. Justified has as appealing a cast as you could want. I won’t bore you with a recitation of their virtues, but my favourite is Boyd, played by Walter Goggins, given licence here to play a deliciously mischievous and charismatic outlaw given reign in part by his friend-nemesis relationship with the hero.
So we get to the real punch-line: this is actually very good television. Sure, in season 1 it’s not breaking ground. Not everything has to. More importantly, it sets its mind to telling a damned good Western tale, and it largely succeeds.