Willa Paskin (c) 2013, Slate
NEW YORK — What genre is “Justified,” the FX series based on an Elmore Leonard character that returns for its fifth season this week? A comedy? A procedural? A comedic procedural? A dramedy? A dramedic procedural? A drama that uses comedic and procedural elements to slowly build up a season-long narrative arc? Back in its second season, “Justified” was all of these things, a punchy yarn starring Timothy Olyphant as U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, featuring screwball dialogue that episode by episode built to something as potent and devastating as that season’s villain’s home-brewed moonshine.
But since then, “Justified’s” writing staff has seemed only half-interested in the intricate plotting and stuffy over-thinking favored by so much “quality television.” Seasons 3 and 4 have had arcs of a sort, but the show’s heart has been in the kooky crime caper, the stinging rejoinder, the fit of Raylan Givens’ pants (which, needless to say, is very good). Justified is TV’s least pretentious show about a morally ambiguous man, but over the years it has become progressively less thoughtful about that man and what he does — which is kill people. As a comedic procedural, “Justified” remains aces; as a thought-provoking drama, well, Raylan’s pants continue to fit him very nicely.
Season 5 finds Raylan headed down to his old stomping grounds of Florida, to wrangle with a branch of a Harlan County clan that, like all Harlan County clans on “Justified,” is up to no good. In addition to allowing Michael Rappaport and Alicia Witt to introduce themselves as the season’s big bad and display their Appalachian accents, Raylan’s sojourn gives him an opportunity to shoot a criminal to death, raising his number of on-duty kills to — well, who can count that high? Back in Kentucky, Raylan is using the seized house of a multimillionaire as a sort of sex palace while contending with drug dealers (one of them played by Wood Harris, aka Avon Barksdale), whom he doesn’t kill, but only after explaining that he legally could.
As played by Olyphant, Raylan is cool and chivalrous, a nonskeezy panty dropper, who only talks and shoots when he has to, and then does both extremely well. Raylan is not an antihero. He’s on the right side of the law. He fights bad guys. And this has long been his cover for a pathologically itchy trigger finger. The title of the show used to be ironic: Raylan’s badge, allowing him to kill with impunity, made him “justified,” but with every episode that feels less like a knowing insight into Raylan’s self-justifications and more a simple statement of fact. If most procedurals start with a titillating dead body you’re encouraged not to think too much about, most episodes of “Justified” end with a rousing gunfight — usually Raylan facing long odds — which you’re also not supposed to think too deeply about.
“Justified” is set in Harlan County, among people for whom poverty and violence is a way of life, constantly begetting more of the same. But starting last season the violence of “Justified” took a cartoonish turn: grisly and over the top and very red. That continues in the new season with Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), the law-breaking mirror image of the law-abiding Raylan Givens, who is having trouble with the heroin trade. Trying to get back on track, Boyd ends up with blood splattered all over his face no less than three times in the first two episodes, once due to inappropriate use of a chain saw in a broken-down Detroit high-rise.
Most of this bloodshed is played for laughs. Less funny are the situations in which the female characters find themselves: almost suffocated with a pillow, physically threatened by a cop, kidnapped and shoved in a trunk. Boyd’s true love Ava, once a feisty anti-heroine in her own right, gets shrewish and short-tempered in prison while another woman caresses Boyd’s pecs. Boys will be boys, and girls will be trouble and eye candy, while also having nothing particularly meaty to do. “Justified” is slumming it: not nearly as sharp or rich as it has been or could be, but still much more clever and enjoyable than its procedural peers. It’s begging to be graded on a curve, when it should be setting it.
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Paskin, Slate’s TV critic, has written for New York Magazine, The New York Times Magazine and Salon.com.