Television now has an icily contemptuous greeting to match Jerry Seinfeld’s famous “Hello, Newman”, which was always delivered with more malevolence than you’d expect from a mild-mannered, sneaker-clad comedian.
The difference is that when the words “Hello Raylan” are uttered by Boyd Crowder (they all have names like that in rural Kentucky, apparently) to the man with whom he used to mine coal back in the day, there’s every chance they’ll both draw pistols – and quite possibly use them.
Boyd Crowder is a spiky-haired rural crook who’s at various times a passionate tent preacher, a tattooed neo-Nazi and a criminal mastermind. His nemesis, Raylan Givens, is a US Deputy Marshal with polite manners, a great deal of ruffled charm and a cowboy hat.
They’re the main characters in the TV show Justified, which I’ve been watching constantly, staying up late to catch just one more episode and then finding myself unable to sleep because my heart’s still racing. And now I want to explain why if you haven’t been watching it, you should.
The best way to explain why it’s so great is to say that it’s Elmore Leonard’s favourite adaptation of any of his books, and he would know. The late crime writer has been hailed as one of the finest American writers of the past century in any genre, and his rules for writing are legendary. In particular, he cautions against “hooptedoodle”, which sounds like advice everyone should follow, whether they’re a writer or not.
Leonard’s books are populated with a menagerie of endearing rogues, terrifyingly callous villains and lawmen (and women) who stray outside the rules to get the job done. Having made a start writing westerns, he adapted to the decline in the genre’s popularity by shifting to contemporary crime, usually in Miami or Detroit but sometimes more exotic locales like Cuba and Italy.
Raylan Givens is his greatest hero, and one of the few deemed worthy of more than one literary outing (along with Karen Sisco, memorably played by Jennifer Lopez in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight). And that may well be because with Raylan, Leonard succeeded in fusing his two favourite genres. The first Marshals, of course, were heroes in the old West, rounding up posses and maintaining frontier justice with their star-shaped badge and trusty six-shooters. And Raylan is their contemporary heir – not just because of the hat, which tends to amuse the more unambiguously modern characters he encounters.
But his most important gift in fighting crime is that he, like the legendary Wyatt Earp, is the quickest draw in the – well, not so much the Wild West as the even wilder South, from Miami, Florida to Lexington, Kentucky.
In Justified, we first meet Raylan at the end of the 24 hours he gives Tommy Bucks, a Miami drug dealer, to leave town. That’s a move straight out of the Earp textbook, but rather at odds with the contemporary Marshals’ handbook. Raylan sits down opposite him, and Bucks draws – but the lawman is too quick, and “puts him down”.
That situation is repeated throughout the series and gives it its name – because if the bad guys (and girls, as it happens) draw first, Raylan’s justified in shootin’. His skill with a weapon is almost like a superpower – he always has the edge, even though dozens of bad guys (and a few bad ladies, into the bargain) try to shoot him first.
As a result of the Bucks incident, Raylan is send to the doghouse – or more specifically, his home state of Kentucky – while the shooting is investigated. That means reconnecting with Boyd, his own equally nefarious father Arlo, and a few old flames as well.
The way I’ve described it, the show sounds like a Hicksville version of cops ‘n robbers – and, well, it is. If you can watch a few episodes without doing dodgy impersonations of the ubiquitous Southern accents, you’re more restrained than me. But it’s a highly entertaining one, and a suspenseful one, too. We never genuinely expect Raylan to die, but other major characters can, and do. There are constant standoffs with pistols drawn, and the suspense rarely lets up.
But Elmore Leonard’s legend was not built on the frequency of his pistol-packing standoffs. It’s all about his rich, morally complex characters and their engrossing, entertaining dialogue, and that’s what’s been faithfully replicated in Justified. Leonard, who called the two adaptations of his novel The Big Bounce the first- and second-worst films ever made, loved the series so much so that he wrote a fresh novel, Raylan, drawing on some of the show’s new characters. The author’s fresh plots were, in turn, incorporated into subsequent episodes.
Take Dewey Crowe, the hapless Crowder acolyte played by Sydneysider Damon Herriman with a spectacularly rustic accent. Every time he’s on screen, he’s hilarious, almost dying due to his own stupidity and escaping largely through dumb luck. He’s surely the most endearing and amusing neo-Nazi ever created.
And then there are the major villains, articulate and charismatic. Crowder is the most enduring of them, but perhaps the most memorable is Mags Bennett, whose small general store is the hub of a marijuana empire, and keeps the peace according to her own lights, and by dispensing moonshine which is known for its deliciousness – but can at times be lethal.
Margo Martindale won an Emmy for the role, and it’s a testament to her performance – and the writing – that at times, you almost want her to succeed. Her character’s a throwback to an older version of the South, where you would do anything for your family but never trust the guv’mint, no sirree. She encapsulates the overall conflict in the series between the old smalltown traditions and the modern world that’s encroaching on Harlan Country.
As for the dialogue – the banter is of the highest quality, and often very witty. And the confrontations, at times, involve powerful speechmaking in front of an audience. No less than Quentin Tarantino admits that Leonard’s laid-back, minimalist approach to conversation was a huge influence on him in writing movies like Pulp Fiction, where the chats the characters have on the way to the crime are just as interesting as what they say while it’s going down.
One of the other interesting lessons from Justified is just how complicated the US justice system is. You have the Marshals, the oldest federal law-enforcement agency with no real Australian equivalent, but there’s also the FBI, DEA, ATF and so on, all wanting a piece of the action. There are also state police, local elected sherriffs, and even a constable, who somehow occupies a lower tier still. And there are federal, state and county lockups.
Ultimately, the show wouldn’t work without Raylan being, like many of Leonard’s characters, just plain cool – as is Timothy Olyphant, who deserves major awards for his performance. He doesn’t say much, but whether he has to take on a bad guy, he just says something restrained and confident like “Here’s how this is gonna go”, or “Way I see it, you got two choices”, and then he tends to win.
At times, Raylan does the wrong thing to help a friend or a loved one – and equally, at times, the criminals are kind and even upstanding, helping Raylan on occasion. Even though the Marshal always wins, the story is morally complex, and the twists along the way hard to predict.
And that’s why, even though it’s full of guns and hicks, I love Justified. It’s hard not to admire Raylan’s ceaseless devotion to his job, and the law. In fact, I like to think I emulate it in my ceaseless devotion to Justified, staying up late watching Justified and talking of little else but Justified. In a way, I like to think, we are both heroes.
Just doin’ my job, ma’am. Just doin’ my job.