What do you tell yourself at night, when you lay your head down, that allows you to wake up in the morning pretending that you're not the bad guy? - Boyd Crowder to Raylin Givens.Appreciation of creative work is always in the eye of the beholder. There is no objective way of say something is good, much less the best. But for me, Justified (with apologies to Mad Men and Game of Thrones), the FX television show based on stories written by Elmore Leonard, is the best show on television today.
At first blush, Justified has more in common with the more generally proclaimed "best show on television" Mad Men, set in the turbulent 1960s, than say Game of Thrones, set in the fantasy world of Westeros. But I see it differently.
The greatness of Justified depends very much on a mythical place, a Western cinema place. It evokes, for me, such great films as Sam Peckinpaugh's Ride The High Country, John Ford's The Searchers, Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, even Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time in the West. And not just because the lead character, Raylin Givens, played wonderfully by Timothy Olyphant, wears a cowboy hat. Instead, it uses the mores and expectations of that genre and twists them to excellent creative ends.
Continued on the other side.
Justified's use of this "new" Western idea is neither novel nor unique. However, it brings a special twist that makes it compelling, not just as a creative work, but as social commentary. I am referring to the setting—rural Harlan County, Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachia.
Placing the story in Harlan County necessarily puts the story in the middle of any number of issues. Here is how Elmore Leonard explains it:
ALLEN BARRA: To hell! I love it that the actors all seem so much like people from Harlan County.
LEONARD: You have to remember that places like Harlan County are where the bosses in Miami and Detroit get a lot of their product from, the stuff they sell in the cities, and that some of these backwoods places are among the biggest drug-producing centers in the country.
BARRA: Where did you go for your background on Harlan County?
LEONARD: I was very moved by Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA, about the Brookside strike, where 180 coal miners and their wives fought a huge coal company, risked everything and paid a hard price for basic rights.
BARRA: Isn’t that where the term “gun thugs,” which is used so often in Justified, started?
LEONARD: Yes. Miners who were working under killer conditions were shot at while picketing. That’s where the term came from. I also found good material in a 1967 book called Stinking Creek, about Knox County, Kentucky. It’s a heartbreaking book with photos of the people who lived there. And judging from the pictures, it’s a hard place to live. It’s aptly named, but like Harlan County, people call it home. [Emphasis supplied.]
The main characters in Justified all live in or come from Harlan County, and the depiction is such that you cannot escape that who they are is a function of where they came from. In his review of the finale of this Season 4, Todd vander Werffe of Grantland writes:
In the end, those choices made and not made, those roads taken and not taken, are the true ghosts that haunt these characters and Justified itself. While Season 4 may not have had a performance as immediately electrifying as Margo Martindale’s work as Mags Bennett in the show’s second season or anything as ambitious plot-wise as last season’s cavalcade of villains, it ended up being surprisingly deep and thematically rich, all without seeming to break a sweat. And so much of that richness came from the way the series used its increasingly tangled backstory and Harlan’s bloody history to suggest that holes in walls might be smoothed over, but whatever was hidden behind them won’t go away so easily. [Emphasis supplied.]To trot out a line much used from Shakespeare's The Tempest:
Whereof what's past is prologue; what to come,Justified argues, I would posit, that the ghosts of the past define our future. Are there apparent choices? Yes. Are there real choices? Certainly. But our past leads us to the point where the choices, such as they are, are offered to us. A study in gray. But in the Elmore Leonard style.
In yours and my discharge.
There is no way to describe or do justice to Justified in this one post, and I will not attempt to try. The only way is to watch it. I urge you to do so if you can. If you do, make sure to catch Margo Martindale as Mags Bennett in Season 2:
In elevating Justified as I have, I mean no disrespect to Mad Men or Game of Thrones or any other scripted show on television (well, maybe to some of them). In many ways, Mad Men and GoT should be more appealing to me.
Mad Men is set in a world, though removed from my time, more familiar to me—that of the big city office (the type of office where I first started my professional career). And many times, Mad Men works very well. (Though this season's first episode strikes me as a fail.)
Especially appealing is the character of Peggy Olson, the former secretary of Don Draper, turned trailblazing female creative director at a rival ad firm. I confess that her evolution on the show is one of the most interesting things ever presented on television.
But the heart of the show—the trials and travails of Don Draper—have become quite a bore to me. Not only do I not care, I am quite bored. Where does the story go? What is it telling us?
I also find Mad Men's dips into the social issues of the 60s (other than Peggy Olson) to be cartoonishly poor. Of course, John Slattery's performance as Roger Sterling is always entertaining. But Mad Men just bores me now for the most part.
With regard to Game of Thrones, at its best, it is rousing adventure and fun machinations. Peter Drinklage's Tyrion Lannister is GoT's Roger Sterling—he has all the best lines. But when it bogs down, it really bogs down. Not a great show to me.
Finally, an honorable mention to Breaking Bad, which ends its run this summer. A terrific show because Bryan Cranston has created an unforgettable character, Walter White. Show creator Vince Gilligan described Breaking Bad as "a story about a man who transforms himself from Mr. Chips into Scarface.'"
I think that says it all.