'Justified' paints more balanced picture of Kentucky


It's TV's greatest public service announcement since that whole "This is your brain on drugs" egg smashing.

For decades, my native Kentucky has battled the sort of image problem that, by comparison, would make Jesse James and Tiger Woods look like Disney princes. Think rednecks, hillbillies and all manner of people who treat family reunions like singles bars.

But while the Bluegrass-based "Justified" (10 p.m. Tuesdays, FX) is full of all those and worse, at least they're not one-dimensional stereotypes. Even the neo-Nazis are every bit as deep as the coal mines.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) swore he'd never return to his tiny, Eastern Kentucky hometown of Harlan. But that was before he cornered, shot and killed a gun thug at a Miami hotel. And even though the shooting was "justified" -- Givens made sure the other guy drew first -- he was transferred to the Lexington office as much as a punishment as a fresh start.

Based on the writings of Elmore Leonard as interpreted by master storyteller Graham Yost ("Boomtown," "Band of Brothers," "The Pacific"), Raylan is a tangle of eccentricities. With his ever-present Stetson and cowboy boots, he stands out almost as much at home as he did in South Florida. He has a curiously calm way of talking that leaves white-power types even more befuddled than they already were. ("Man," one of them says, flustered to the point of violence, "I don't understand you!") And he's prone to telling truly awful jokes. ("Do you know why the Pentecostals don't have sex standing up? Could lead to dancin'.")

But while he remains bourbon smooth, Raylan's homecoming has been anything but. He went from being a star fugitive-tracker in Miami -- "a sunny place full of shady people," Raylan calls it -- to having to add forfeitures, witness relocation and the grunt work of prisoner transport to his duties. His court reporter ex-wife (Natalie Zea) is never far away. And unlike FX's other alpha males, Raylan's quickly proven fallible on the job when a senior citizen prison escapee gets the drop on him and steals both of his guns, his car, his badge and his prized hat.

His biggest problem, though, remains his former coal-digging buddy and all-around troublemaker, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins).

So far, Boyd's taken his own sister-in-law hostage, driven the getaway pickup from a bank robbery and blown up a church with a rocket launcher. But despite his swastika tattoo, Confederate flag belt buckle and rants about the "Federal Bureau of Imperialism," Boyd's far more complex than your average bad guy.

That's partly thanks to Goggins, who, as Vic Mackey's renegade lieutenant Shane Vendrell on "The Shield," managed to eclipse the great Michael Chiklis in that groundbreaking drama's final episodes. And it's partly due to the writing, which always digs deeper than it needs to.

"No more following a seam underground," Boyd says, touching on the upheaval in the coal industry while lamenting the changing world around him. "Cheaper to take the tops off mountains and let the slag run down and ruin the creeks."

And even though he claims his views on minorities are biblical in nature, odds are he's using religion, and maybe even racism itself, to mask his own motives. "You know, Boyd," Raylan tells him, "I think you just use the Bible to do whatever the hell you like."

I may not entirely be sold on the idea of putting a (somewhat) sympathetic face on the white-power movement, but it makes for fascinating TV. It also follows "Justified's" pattern of ignoring the black-and-white in favor of exploring the grays. And that's especially important given that the drama is the first modern scripted series ever set in Kentucky.

The supporting characters might not have designer clothes or fancy educations, but they're not all one-note hayseeds. Raylan's cases take him to the area's trailer parks and its McMansions. Even the criminal of the week who's sleeping with his cousin has his standards. "Well," he says proudly, "it ain't like we're first cousins."

"Justified" might well be the best thing not named John Calipari to happen to Kentucky in years. And the whole thing plays like a love letter to a simpler way of life.

"I hate it here. Kentucky," a transplanted New York bookie complains. "I hate every one of these toothless, banjo-strummin' pricks." "Just outta curiosity," Raylan's easy-going, seen-it-all boss (Nick Searcy) responds, "do you remember which one of us toothless rednecks it was that invited you down here in the first place?"

Most viewers can ignore all that, though. They can tune in simply for the richly drawn characters and the glimpse into an often misunderstood world that's rarely portrayed.

But to anyone who grew up there, that kind of respect, balance and attention to detail is not only appreciated, it's justified.

Christopher Lawrence's Life on the Couch column appears on Sundays. E-mail him at clawrence@ reviewjournal.com.

 

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