If you’re not watching the new season of Justified (Tuesdays at 10 on FX), you’re missing the best crime series on TV and what may be about to become one of the genuinely great crime series of all time. For me, most TV shows reach their highest level in the first year. Stories have a theme. The theme works itself out in the first year. Everything else is a sequel, second best. Sometimes by the fourth year a new theme is discovered and the show gets a second wind, but it’s still rarely as good as that first season. Dexter and The Wire, two great shows, come to mind as examples.
But while the first three seasons of Justified have been distinguished by terrific acting, spectacular dialogue, excellent characters and moments of violence that were terrifying without being unnecessarily disgusting (usually), the year-long arcs of the plots have not been as great as the rest of the package. The show is inspired by an Elmore Leonard short story, and while Leonard’s genius for dialogue and his hilarious and realistic approach to human corruption are what inform the show at its best, his satiric and sometimes rambling plotting doesn’t translate that well to TV.(Or maybe it’s just that he’s not writing the show — though the creator Graham Yost has channeled him wonderfully.)
In its first two episodes, however, this season looks to me to have moved to an even higher level. The yearlong plot, which involves the unearthing of a long-lost messenger bag, is inherently compelling and makes a great hook on which to hang the sub-plots. And the main characters seem to have found themselves in ways that give them fresh life. The appealing out-of-his-time hero Raylan Givens (played with a pitch-perfect blend of irony and valor by Timothy Olyphant) is in a relationship with a barmaid that promises some really interesting complications, especially as his ex is about to give birth to their child. The small-town gangster Boyd Crowder (played by The Shield‘s Walton Goggins, one of the best actors on TV, if not the best) is now in a relationship with his widowed sister-in-law Ava (played by the excellent and heart-meltingly beautiful Joelle Carter) that is as genuinely affectionate and touching as it is murderous and corrupt. Nick Searcy’s perfectly played Chief, world-weary but compassionate, is struggling with retirement. And all the new characters — a tent preacher, a constable, the barmaid’s ex — look to be richly drawn and promising.
Really, watching the first two episodes was bliss.
The second golden age of American crime writing, which lived in the novel during the 80’s and 90’s, has moved to television. Justified is an excellent part of that excellent trend and just seems to be getting better.