Justified, FX's sly, potentially delightful Western drama based on an Elmore Leonard character—which premieres tonight at 10pm—is a show about a great many things: Nazi prison gangs, the brotherhood of coal miners, misplaced loot, terrible jokes about Baptists, business plans for sex shops, drug cartels, coyotes who sneak people back into Mexico and misapplied dentistry. Perhaps most importantly, though, it's a story about a man and his hat.
That hat, an ostentatious white Stetson, is the means by which Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal played with sexy nerve by Timothy Olyphant, enters the show's first episode, on his way to kill a man. The initial shot of the back of his overdressed head pulls back to reveal palm trees and then a perfect Miami pool, the environs from which Givens will quickly exile himself by dispatching three bullets in the chest of a gun-runner who once killed one of Givens' comrades. Because the other man pulled his gun first, Givens will insist that the shooting was "justified," a word he softens towards the end when he uses it, and he uses it frequently. Of course, Givens ends up shooting an old friend shortly after his transfer, leading his new boss to caution, "If you was in the first grade and you bit someone every week, they'd start to think of you as a biter."
Givens' quick-draw may be what earned him reassignment back to Lexington, where he grew up the son of a criminal and dug coal before joining the marshal service. But the hat is his means of self-definition. When one of his father's old criminal partners breaks out of jail and takes Givens hostage in a convenience store, he takes Givens' keys, badge, gun, "and your hat!" which Givens hands over with exaggerated gentlemanliness, to avoid checkpoint detections. "How do you think it'd go over at work if I came in one day wearing a cowboy hat? How do you think that'd go over?" Rachel Brooks, one of his new colleagues, demands of him when Givens usurps her on an assignment to Los Angeles she was supposed to lead, insisting that he only gets away with his attitude because he's male and white. He urges her to try it on, and when he falls asleep on the drive back, Stetson tilted over his eyes, she takes him up on the offer. "It fit?" he asks. "No," she says shortly, ending their argument for the moment.
Like the true self Raylan both communicates and obscures with his Stetson, Justified as a whole has in common with its hero an identity that's not initially clear. The show shares Raylan's ambivalence for his Kentucky home, a setting that's a refreshing alternative to the New York-Miami-Los Angeles axis that dominates and dulls so much of television today.
Sometimes, that ambivalence means beautiful shots of a swooping road out of town, mirroring the Miami pool, or a bright sunset over a flat landscape as Raylan delivers a sad-sack neo-Nazi, a man who failed an audition to play Goofy at Disney World because he couldn't water ski, to jail. The show's portrayals aren't always as distinctive as its landscapes. The fat and feckless Nazis, a blowsy former cheerleader who murdered her abusive husband, a stilted conversation about race, gender, and achievement in the Marshal Service, and a standoff over fried chicken and mixed carrots and peas feel like stock images.
But when Justified surprises, something it does more and more frequently as the episodes go on, the show is marvelous. Raylan's the source of many of those surprises, a man who jokes about putting out an all points bulletin on Cab Calloway, charms the pastor of an alternative black church by telling him a story about escorting a fugitive to a Peter Tosh show, or considers himself loyal to a man who ducked out of his offer of witness protection. And his colleagues emerge from the background, at one point with a trunkful of guns and the skills for a major-league shootout, at another moment with sniper's advice on how to handle a stakeout.
Even the one-offs are terrific, like an older black man who trades cars with a fugitive who mistakes him for a veteran. "Enjoy it. And thank you for your service to our nation," the fugitive tells him. "I lost a leg to diabetes, but you're welcome!" the man says before he roars off—only to invoke his time in the Mekong Delta when he's stopped by local cops, who of course have no idea what he's talking about.
There's a lot of humor and potential and actual sex and violence Kentucky, it turns out. If Raylan and his Stetson can avoid crowding the screen, our visit there with him may turn out to be more than worth our while.