Justified: Westerns in The Bronze Age
Today’s column started as a weird kind of high-concept thing comparing The Wire to Justified. I used all sorts of twisted logic and incomplete metaphor. There wereÂ syllogisms and idiotic comparisons that stretched my credibility nearly toÂ Creation Museum levels. It was a beautifully written thousand words/hundred links and youâ€™d have loved it, I promise. The syntax alone was enough to make you swear off the other writers you should be devouring daily and just bask in the warmth of my bullroar. But I just couldnâ€™t bring myself to publish it. You deserve a better hook than another compare/contrast piece. Bottom line: the two shows donâ€™t fit together the way Iâ€™d hoped. Theyâ€™re both about law and order and drugs and guns and cetera (this one, not this one). But thatâ€™s a description that would cover a ton of other shows, many of which are a better match with the greatness that we remember as The Wire (NSFW: The Wire). So for the good of us all, Iâ€™ve abandoned that line of examination in favor of another.
Justified isnâ€™t really a cop show, anyway. Drugs arenâ€™t the point. Itâ€™s simpler than all that. Justified, when it comes down to it, is a Westernâ€”and itâ€™s wonderful.
Westerns were probably my first love. By the time I went from these to these, my favorite movies were a combination of rayguns and six-shooters. Star Wars was great, but so was The Angel and the Badman. I loved Alias Jesse James and Maverick (not that one, the good one); Buck Rogers and Star Trek. The Wild Wild West (not that one, the good one). It was my dadâ€™s fault. Heâ€™d grown up in the golden age of Hollywood Westerns and made sure I was introduced as a toddler to the films of that USC football great Marion Morrison. I was taught to especially crave the movies of Sam Peckinpah and Anthony Mann, whose heroes constantly struggled with their own inner demons even while they waited for noon to roll around and a gunfight to break out (neither of those links is a film directed by the men I’ve mentioned, but it’s all in the ballpark). I have my favorite Westerns of the 30s (1939 alone had two of the best ever), 40s (can’t choose just one) and 50s (sensing a pattern here in the sweet spot of the genreâ€¦too many to chooseÂ from for the list to ever be complete). The 60s had a pretty strong showing, too. Every generation of actor and film-maker brought fresh points-of-view. Then, around the zenith of disco, it all came crashing down. Blame Mel Brooks (NSFW: too much truth for your boss to handle) or this 4-hr train-wreck or this apparent prequel to The Cannonball Run. The 70s, 80s and (most of the) 90s were bleak. Just painful. Glimpses of brilliance, sure (several of them–several of them), but overall those were some lean times. Then, around the 3rd demise of the boy bands, came Open Range, for my money the first great western in 10 years. As often happens in these times of turmoil and uncertainty,Â HBO took this opportunity to get involved (NSFW: Ian McShane). Thank God. We might not be in another Golden Age, but I’d give it a solid Bronze. The last 10 years have produced a ton of terrific horse operas. Remakes even better than the originals. Great twists on some pretty iconic set-ups. Indies (lots of them) and a Best Picture and whatever this is (itâ€™s pretty great), westerns are popping up constantly. Itâ€™s not all roses (it never was) but there are plenty of great modern options for the Western fan. Which brings me back to Justified.
Western TV shows have come back in a big way. They tried it in the 80s and 90s to varying degrees of success (wow, that’s just no good). The miniseries Lonesome Dove stands on its own as the best of the bunch, but we havenâ€™t had this many cowboy hats and quick-draws andÂ steam-engines on at one time in 40 years. The best of the bunch is clearly Justified (now in its 4th season on FX, Tuesdays at 10EST/9CST). It’s an hour-long soap following US Marshal Raylan Givens and his adventures in Harlon County, KY. It takes place today and not in the Western two-thirds of the country, but donâ€™t let that fool you. This is white hats, spurs and showdowns on dirt roads.
Givens (Deadwoodâ€™s Timothy Olyphant) is a crack-shot lawman who never draws first. His nemesis is at different times his best friend (a scripture-twisting Walton Goggins) and his own small-time con-man father. The show focuses on characters created byÂ Elmore Leonard (the short story â€˜Fire in the Holeâ€™ is the basis for the pilot episode) and there is a pleasant noir-ish darkness and humor to the whole series. Every season features new villains (and like all popular shows, the new cast members get more famous as the series progresses) and a new point of view for the main conflict. The first season introduces us to Givens and his friends and enemies. Next comes the big local drug suppliers. Then we tackle the bigger regional suppliers and the â€œDixie Mafiaâ€. We keep rolling along with local politics, union problems and banking irregularities. We slowly get a total picture of what life is like in this economically depressed and under-educated/over-ammoed corner of the world. We like our good guys flawed, our bad guys charismatic (spoiler) and our violence more-or-less constant. This whiskey-steeped soap opera with a cast of fascinating train-wrecks has good music and terrific actors working on funny/excellent dialogue. On second thought, never mind: itâ€™s exactly like The Wire. Except we still get to watch new episodes. Get to it.
Bonus: Iâ€™m adding a feature to the column. With every article Iâ€™ll supply a recommendation to something that is available streaming on Netflix, YouTube or Hulu. As I come to fall even more in love with Hulu+ (thanks, @grogg) Iâ€™ll include selections from there along with movies that are cheap rents on Amazon or Vudu as well. Todayâ€™s Netflix suggestion is one of my favorite westerns, which is linked in the above article: Warlock. Itâ€™s a terrific story with a HoF cast including Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn and the terrific Dorothy Malone. Directed by the criminally under-remembered Edward Dmytryk, it is more than worth your time and attention.
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