My family has a code word for shows like Justified: “awesome.” It doesn’t mean that, of course; I saw that Louis C.K. special too. When we call something awesome, we use a private meaning that applies mostly to this show, the oeuvre of Bruce Campbell, and most of Iggy Pop’s career. It means effortlessly stupid, stupid with swagger, with agency over its stupidity. And for six seasons, Justified was awesome.
Why was it awesome? Because it was honest about what it was. In our vaunted Golden Age of Television where every damn thing has to be postmodern or a commentary on something or a meta-something, here was a show where the guy in the white hat tried to outsmart the guy in the black hat. And it was fine with that. It knew what it was. Sure, there was a lot of chewed scenery, and too many clichés deployed too easily, especially when it tried too hard to sound southern, but all it took was a wink from an actor or a snappy one-liner to head off critical scrutiny and tell the audience to lighten the hell up.
Theoretically, it should have been my favorite show. I grew up around hard-luck southerners who learned a whole bunch of hard-won lessons, and I find it difficult to latch on to anything that doesn’t have a character or two like that in its periphery. I don’t want to fritter my nights away on CMT videos or crypto-conservative 1990s westerns, mind you, but I need my entertainment to have some dirt under its fingernails or I eventually get alienated and pass out. And yet, after only one season, I gave up on Justified. I gave up on White Hat Guy vs. Black Hat Guy. I gave up on a show that I knew had Stephen Root and rocket launchers in it. I gave up on the only contemporary show I was feasibly going to watch from 2010 to 2015.
So, in preparation for the finale, I decided to figure out exactly what my problem was, and I chose to do this in the least efficient way possible: by mainlining the five seasons of the show I missed, a mere month ahead of the finale. I had two reasons for being such a moron. The first was to feel like I was part of a group with a shared interest (didn’t work), and the second was to understand why upstanding members of society willingly piss away so much time on these complicated hourlongs (ditto).
Now, I cannot think of a less appealing pastime than handing 60 hours of my life over to yet another hourlong with complicated webs of intrigue and betrayal. I do not understand why people enjoy it. It’s like being drugged, medicated, exiled. It creates the exact same dull fogginess I got from a trial of Zoloft, and I put on comparable amounts of weight in the process. The only way I stayed awake was by mentally rewriting scenes I didn’t like as I watched them and, when there was no dialogue, by changing the camera placement and shot lengths.
But why didn’t it quite click for me? It’s set in Harlan County and I own most songs with Harlan in the title. It’s a show where people drink bourbon in dive bars and say “your debts will not be so easily forgiven” without apologizing for it. That’s my home turf. I live for this. I live for southerners who got sidetracked on the way to righteousness.
As much as I joke about it, the problem was not the Los Angeles County location doubling. Yes, watching Justified could at times be like a “history of the south” attraction at one of the boring parts of Disneyland. I saw the NBC building in at least one of the chase scenes, and they had the audacity to stage a scene on Magnolia Blvd. in Burbank – the same street P.T. Anderson named his damn movie after. All that stuff took me out of the show. But I like being taken out of a show. I enjoy having some distance, and it’s weirdly endearing when L.A. tries to play cowboy. That wasn’t the operative issue.
So was it the lack of authenticity from lead actor Timothy Olyphant, who grew up in Modesto, California? No, that wasn’t it either. Yankees doing southern affectations is fine too as long as they’re not too loud about it (Kyra Sedgwick). It’s even fine when you’re Raymond J. Barry, who hails from Long Island, because I mentally replace every word that comes out of your mouth with “wrong kid died,” and that’ll keep me laughing long after I forget the name of the show.
Lucky for you though, I’ve isolated the answer now that the show’s over: like far too many contemporary hourlongs, Justified placed too much emphasis on narrative and not enough on its characters. Not all shows need to be serialized. Not all shows need to be sprawling epics. Not all shows need to provide alternate lives for the audience. Not all shows need to be movies.
When Justified was able to get away from its Golden Age of Television-mandated narrative arcs and linger on White Hat Guy and Black Hat Guy outwitting each other, it was one of the best shows on television. When it let its actors hang out and let their personas bounce off each other, when it got to just be a damn TV show for once, it was smart and fun. It was great to just sit in a room with those characters and absorb the verbosity and lazy rhythms of the dialogue. But then the narrative would usher them off someplace in L.A. dressed up as Kentucky and it would start to feel like homework.
Justified could have learned some lessons from Rockford Files here, a show it’s similar to in its best moments. Rockford, the definitive light-hearted southern-tinged action show, had tons of breathing room for its characters to just live their lives. Justified had to do it in between huge obligatory arcs like “Black Hat Guy attempts to take over entire drug trade” that accomplished little besides racking up a body count.
The problem with putting any serialization in a show like this is that you feel pressured to watch it in sequence, no matter how asinine the specifics of the story, just in case somebody important died. And then the show’s best moments become impossible to demonstrate to newcomers. You can’t recommend the show to them either, because you can’t tell them it’s worth a 60+ hour investment when half of it feels like homework.
Justified was compromised by the contemporary television landscape in execution if not in concept. But it had two enormous selling points: the perfect chemistry of its leads, especially Walton Goggins and Joelle Carter, and the melodic, ornate dialogue. Everybody on that show was fantastic at talking and they had great words to say when the stakes were realistic rather than cinematic.
But when the stakes had to get raised into “our way of life is dying and the only way out is to murder fifteen thousand people” territory, when Big Moral Questions had to be asked and everybody had to dance through their tired Edgy Basic Cable Drama steps, it was continually disappointing. Every time they did it, the show was simply too far away from its comfort zone of two guys slyly outwitting each other in the Fake American South. And every time they did it with Edgy Basic Cable Drama gore or Edgy Basic Cable Drama sex scenes, not to mention Edgy Basic Cable Drama stock white trash bit players, it was downright depressing.
Was Justified great? Sometimes. When it allowed itself to be a hangout show, a cynical southern dramedy, or just a collection of “stoic loners driving around on desperate missions” montages, it could be great. And especially in season six, when it threw away any notion of verisimilitude to become a full-blown old time western with everything from quick-draws to Sam Elliott, it was awesome. Too bad it was serialized though. That means there were no great standalone episodes, just great scenes, and for all its charm, it means I’ll probably never watch it again. And yet – there was greatness in there someplace.