On paper, FX's "Justified" might seem a little ho-hum: Soft-spoken but deadly U.S. marshal with baggage -- most recently a "justified" shooting of a murderer in Miami -- returns to work in his eastern Kentucky hometown.
But on screen the show has a soaked-in mood, courtesy of pilot director Michael Dinner, and terrific performances that mark "Justified" as the best new series premiere so far in 2010.
Debuting at 10 p.m. Tuesday, the "Justified" pilot filmed in Western Pennsylvania last spring (under the title "Fire in the Hole"), but subsequent episodes are shooting in Los Angeles. There's probably not a lot for Pittsburghers to recognize in tomorrow's premiere, save for a brief shot of Uptown and the under-construction Penguins arena (playing the role of an under-construction federal building) and some scenes shot in Kittanning. And that's intentional: Western Pennsylvania is playing the role of Lexington and rural Harlan, Ky. (Two future episodes are set at night and in California, perhaps in an effort to avoid trying to match the Pensyltucky aesthetic.)
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday, FX.
Starring: Timothy Olyphant.
Timothy Olyphant stars in "Justified" as Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, a character that first appeared in stories written by author Elmore Leonard, a creative consultant on "Justified," which runs until about 11:15 p.m. in its extended premiere outing.
Givens does not seem thrilled at the prospect of returning home. He avoids his father, Arlo (Raymond J. Barry), and wants to rekindle relations with his remarried ex-wife, Winona (Natalie Zea).
In the premiere, written by executive producer Graham Yost ("Boomtown," "Band of Brothers"), Givens also has a job to do, chasing down Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), whom Givens once worked with as a coal miner.
Crowder is wanted in the bombing of a church. When Givens finds Crowder, he doesn't immediately arrest him or go into interrogator mode; instead, he engages him in conversation using good ol' boy charm to ease into the business he has to discuss.
Future episodes begin to flesh out the secondary characters, including Givens' boss, Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), and his fellow deputies, former Army sniper Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts, "The Pacific") and up-and-comer Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel, "Jericho").
In next week's episode, Art notes the higher-ups are keeping an eye on Givens after two shootings in two weeks.
"Put it to ya like this," Art says. "If you were in the first grade and you bit somebody once a week, they'd start to think of you as a biter."
Attention to character, particularly among the criminals of the week, exemplify what's unique about "Justified." On most shows, these guest characters have pretty generic traits that amount to "bad" or "crazy." On "Justified," the antagonists are colorful and rooted in specificity. Next week, Givens tracks a folksy prison escapee who previously robbed a bank and was jailed when another robber died during the robbery under "foreseeable circumstances."
"Honestly, if you hire a moron for a driver, it's foreseeable," the escapee says.
That dry humor permeates "Justified." Violence erupts unexpectedly but so do comic moments.
Sometimes "Justified" pushes the bounds of believability both with the more intelligent patter of the bad guys and with Givens' laid-back swagger. Givens' decision to allow a convict to drive on a trip to a new prison home in episode two is particularly tough to swallow.
Still, for a network like FX that has largely trafficked in anti-heroes on shows like "The Shield," "Thief" and "Sons of Anarchy," "Justified" marks a new direction. Givens is a straight-up hero who literally wears a white hat. He's a complicated good guy with issues of his own to work through.
The series embraces romantic notions of the no-nonsense but not-so-bureaucratic sheriff. Givens enforces the law but does so in as polite a manner as possible. He warns that if a lawbreaker makes him pull his gun, he will not hesitate, but his first choice is to engage in pleasant banter.
Mr. Olyphant has certainly grown as an actor since "Deadwood," where his Sheriff Seth Bullock seemed to only have two expressions: angry and angrier. Although "Justified" ends with Givens' ex-wife saying, "Honestly, you are the angriest man I know," Givens has yet to show much rage. Most times he's cool as a cucumber, although on occasion, particularly when anyone mentions his father, he does work himself up to a mild simmer. This offers promise for many layers of the character that can be pulled away over time. Barely brewing seems like a perfect place to begin.
TV editor Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published March 15, 2010 4:00 AM