It's easy to take Justified for granted. When putting my list of 2013's ten best TV shows together a couple of weeks back, Justified didn't make the cut, a decision that's been gnawing at my conscience ever since. It's not that last year's fourth season of FX's inconspicuous crime dramedy—starring the superb Timothy Olyphant as U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens—wasn't as strong as previous ones. The only reason I can come up with as to why Justified ultimately wasn't in my top ten is this: Once again, Justified was quietly four-star television, never losing a step throughout its 13 episodes but also never calling attention to itself or doing anything out of the ordinary.
Consider some of the TV programs that did make my list. Breaking Bad was a pop culture phenomenon in 2013, roaring through its final season with traumatic deaths, water-cooler hype, and more media coverage in any given week than it'd had any previous year combined. Game of Thrones, another model of consistency like Justified, shocked the world with its brutal "Red Wedding" incident. Hannibal brought cable-TV-level gore to NBC, upping the basic network ante. The Returned and Black Mirror arrived from overseas—France and England, respectively—and blindsided stateside viewers by handling familiar genre tropes (zombies, a la The Walking Dead, and anthologizing cautionary science fiction and horror, like The Twilight Zone) with atypical elegance and intelligence. Sons of Anarchy was the loudest of all, killing off two of its most important characters after introducing its latest season with a horrific school shooting sequence.
Justified, meanwhile, stayed true to form. Olyphant was as on-point as ever, regularly giving Emmy-worthy performances as Raylan Givens, one of TV's most complicated and likable protagonists, a confident lawman who follows his own rulebook yet isn't a Dirty-Harry-like cynic. As the equally complex antagonist Boyd Crowder, Walton Goggins continued to earn sympathy and fear as the most dangerous man/drug kingpin in Harlan County, Kentucky. Together, Olyphant and Goggins comprise Justified's wonderful yin/yang nucleus. Their conflicting interests collided in surprising, dark, but lively ways as Justified's fourth season revolved around a 30-year-old unsolved mystery about a dead body found next to a parachute and bags of cocaine. Raylan's troubled childhood and daddy issues slowly revealed themselves as the corpse's connection to his son-of-a-bitch father, Arlo Givens (Raymond J. Barry), made the investigation more personal than expected. As for Boyd's involvement, his pursuing the same answers as Raylan led to the imprisonment of his beloved Ava (Joelle Carter).
It was all compelling, emotionally sharp storytelling, which didn't surprise any of Justified's loyal fans. During the show's first season, in 2010, creator Graham Yost and his colleagues worked through some narrative kinks, starting the series off with the villain-of-the-week format common to police procedurals, except that Olyphant's central performance and the colorful array of criminal-minded yokels that surrounded him gave Justified that extra edge. Despite its unoriginal structure, it was clearly bounds better than shows of its ilk airing on networks like NBC, Fox, and CBS. And fortunately, come season two, Yost recognized that himself, turning Justified into one through-lined story. The result: One of the best overall seasons of television of the new millennium, a brilliant look at Raylan's combating against the bad-news Bennett family, led by the ruthless but disarming Mags Bennett (an exceptional Margo Martindale, who rightfully won an Emmy for her work).
Since then, Justified has devoted entire seasons to one main storyline through which Raylan, Boyd, and fan-favorite side characters like Dixie Mafia member Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) and neo-Nazi numbskull Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman) all cross paths to unpredictable, often tragic, and always funny and entertaining degrees. Because of Harlan County's eccentric residents, Justified is a joy to watch even when nothing involving guns, handcuffs, or narcotics is happening.
The lack of media bombardment around Justified also ensures that you won't grow tired of it. There's a unique kind of satisfaction that comes from not seeing an onslaught of Justified recaps every Wednesday morning, or interviews with Olyphant routinely popping up on Access Hollywood and its similarly superficial counterparts. Justified achieves greatness on its own terms, and doesn't need the universal acclaim to, excuse the pun, justify anything.
That subtlety, however, is precisely why I initially overlooked Justified while compiling my best-of-2013 countdown. In that regard, does it need to be flashier in order to receive that elusive universal acclaim? To transcend its below-the-radar efficiency and prove to viewers and critics alike that it's the best show on FX and not far off from other networks' darlings like Mad Men (AMC) and Boardwalk Empire (HBO)? Being television's underdog is cool and all, but there's no reason why Justified shouldn't be a yearly Outstanding Drama Series nominee at the Primetime Emmys—a distinction that the show has yet to receive.
Can season five, which begins tonight at 10 p.m. EST, be the one that demands Emmy voters' collective attention? Based on the first two episodes, "A Murder of Crowes" and "The Kids Aren't All Right" (airing next Tuesday night), it's definitely on the right track. Tonight's premiere sets the stage for Raylan's next arch-enemy to raise some backwoods hell: It's Daryl Crowe, Jr., the Florida gator farmer/drug lord/cousin of Dewey played with an engaging balance of goofy charm and steely menace by Michael Rapaport. In Harlan, Dewey Crowe has just collected $300,000 after taking Raylan to court for the time Mr. Givens beat the piss out of him. Dewey now owns Boyd's whorehouse and is living like a rock star, which inspires Daryl, whose Florida operations are struggling financially, to head up to Kentucky and reconnect with Dewey and his riches. Boyd, for his part, is doing whatever it takes to get Ava out of prison, including heading to Detroit to rectify a missing shipment of drugs before returning home to nearly murder a character-we-won't-name-here and get stuck in his own $300,000 pickle.
It doesn't take long for Justified to settle back into its many comfort zones, chief of which is the show's penchant for effortlessly witty dialogue. While visiting Dewey's brothel to ask about his cousin Dilly, who's connected to a missing Coast Guard marshal, Raylan sons Dewey and Boyd's brother, Wade, with another one of his golden insults: "I start arresting girls, Dewey, how's that for business? With you and Wade the only two pussies in this whorehouse." In Detroit, Boyd responds to a gangbanger's question, asked as he points a gun at Boyd, about whether it's his first time in the D with, "I have been to Iraq—it's a lot like Detroit, except you have better music."
Lines like that are music to a longtime Justified viewer's ears, and it's a real pleasure to say hello again to Raylan Givens, Boyd Crowder, and the rest of Harlan County. As "A Murder of Crowes" cements, they're still TV's definition of consistency—even if fans like myself occasionally take them for granted.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)