Here’s why ‘Justified’ is the best show since the Sopranos

For those of you who are woefully, woefully unaware, here’s the fact; you need to watch Justified.

I’ve been watching TV since 1993. I sat through the nightmarish fog of Rosie and Jim, where the BBC decided that children wanted nothing more than to watch satanic puppets on a riverboat. I was there for the apex of Kenan and Kell, Sabrina the Teenage witch, Nickelodeon anime and Fox Kids’ shortlist of Power Rangers, Beetleborgs and the animated X-Men series. I’ve lived through the highs and lows of modern television and there remains a bleak absence that Geordie Shore can’t even begin to reach.

But then there’s Justified.

Before anything else, I have to note that it’s a crime procedural among many others. The general setup is always thus; a crime occurs and Raylan Givens (played by Timothy Olyphant) has to shoot, beat or screw his way to justice every episode. It’s a simple enough concept, but there’s enough fat on that particular bone to build six seasons around the universe without sacrificing a moment of pace or character development.

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There are absolutely powerhouse performances from Olyphant (in the best role he’s ever portrayed, including Deadwood) and Walton Goggins (second only to his portrayal of Venus in Sons of Anarchy). In the Pilot episode, the very first of the season, the chemistry is implosive, explosive and undeniable. Both actors play their parts so well that there’s a kind of gravity surrounding them, a magic keeping them both grounded within the sphere of the camera with the only direction left being up.

However, Justified distinguished itself in an important and unusual way. It’s about cowboys.

Raylan Given’s is the simplest of characters. He’s the last frontiersman, a hero caught between the extremes of black and white. From the first episode to the last, he’s the ultimate anti-hero who’s willing to bend any rule just to brush his fingers against the moral absolute while occupying the spaces between right and wrong. Boyd Crowder, however, is a much more complex character, constantly flittering between self-destruction redemption and a scorched-earth annihilation of biblical proportions. He’s a man searching for meaning, beginning with the doctrine of white supremacy before switching to Catholicism and reaching an ultimate Nihilism that leaves him searching beyond his own absence.

But it even goes beyond that. Graham Yost, the developer of the series (although not always the writer or director) shows an amazing, almost impossible, grasp of both genre and context. Raylan himself is never without his own white hat, a sly nod to the ‘White Hats’ of cowboy dramas, but unlike CSI or any of its slick procedural siblings Justified never pretends that law enforcement are infallible. Raylan remains in the dark as often as the light, and Chief Art Mullen (played by Nick Searcy) is willing to be on the wrong side for the right reasons, and the characters only become more complex as the seasons develop. For example, the third season reveals that the Marshal’s service maintain plausible deniability in the face of the marijuana industry, acknowledging its undeniable real-world momentum without casting it in a binary right/wrong dichotomy.

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When you first encounter Justified, or even upon first watching, it seems like ‘Dad TV’; entertaining, but lacking in art or drama. But when you take a moment to see instead of simply watching you will find a level of artistry that is rarely seen in television. It’s beautifully framed, perfectly scored and written with both heart and humour, and that’s what makes it one of the best shows of the past decade.

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