Monday, March 15, 2010

Olyphant shines in FX's excellent "Justified"

There's a group of actors I like to call "2-percenters."
These are performers who, in about 98 percent of their projects, are just kind of OK. They're not bad, necessarily. It's just that they're nothing special. But, every now and then, they find roles that suit them perfectly. Maybe these roles play to their strengths as performers. Maybe they're a close fit with their own personalities. Whatever the reason, these performers are suddenly transformed. They become unstoppable. You can't take your eyes off of them.
Perhaps the most famous of these 2-percenters is Hilary Swank, mainly because, whenever she plays to her strengths, she's good enough to garner an Oscar. But there are other 2-percenters out there, including actor Timothy Olyphant.
In most of his projects, Olyphant is decent, but doesn't exactly jump off the screen (he holds the dubious distinction of being the blandest of all the "Die Hard" villains -- and yes, I remember William Sadler in "Die Hard 2"). Yet ask the guy to play a no-nonsense lawman and he brings the house down. He was sensational as the decent but flawed Seth Bullock on HBO's much-missed Western "Deadwood." And Olyphant scores again as the cowboy hat-sporting Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in FX's excellent new drama "Justified," which premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m.
Maybe it's his steely stare, his ambling walk or the cool, dry tone of his voice, but Olyphant is captivating when he's laying down the law. Of course, here -- as in "Deadwood" -- he has the benefit of excellent material.
"Justified" was created by Graham Yost, who's been involved with such prestigious projects as "Band of Brothers" and "Boomtown." It's based on characters created by acclaimed novelist Elmore Leonard, and the  show has the quirky, funny, straightforward tone of much of Leonard's fiction.
The premise is pretty basic -- Olyphant's Givens gets into some trouble and is transferred from Miami to his home state of Kentucky. There he encounters some eccentric locals, including a few old friends. In the pilot, those friends include Givens's former coal-digging partner, Boyd Crowder, played by the always-awesome Walton Goggins of "The Shield." Boyd, it turns out, has become a white supremacist and developed a fondness for blowing up buildings.
Other episodes have Givens facing off against a musically inclined prison escapee and a former accountant for a drug cartel (the latter is played by the irreplacable Alan Ruck of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off").
In addition to Olyphant and the aforementioned guest stars, the cast includes the wry Nick Searcy as Givens's boss and Erica Tazel and Jacob Pitts as his new colleagues. Natalie Zea and Joelle Carter are also on hand as the women in Givens's life -- an ex-wife and current love interest, respectively.
Each episode is more or less self-contained, without a lot of the cliffhangers or complex mythology that drives a lot of modern TV. Yet it's not a procedural drama either. It's something rarer -- a smart, well-written, well-acted character drama that feels more like a series of short independent films than a conventional TV series. In that way, it reminds me of another TV show adapted from Elmore Leonard's work, ABC's short-lived "Karen Sisco."
I have a feeling that "Justified" will be more successful, in part because cable demands smaller audiences than broadcast TV. But, also, I think audiences are hungry for a show that treats them like grown-ups. And, any show that has the good sense to hand Olyphant a cowboy hat and a badge clearly knows what it's doing.


Bill Scurry said...

This sounds like it's the perfect FX show, from conception to execution. I have to admit, the Olyphant-ness was originally going to keep me away, but I'm getting more excited about this as the days creep by.

Fun fact -- Alan Ruck is married to Mireille Enos, who plays Kathy/Jodeen Marquart on "Big Love."

Bill Scurry said...

Alright, this was a marvelous effort. I got sad after Boyd was shot because it looked as if it was going to be a one ep stint, but I know that Goggins is set up to recur. Whew.

Tim Olyphant was confident, maybe even more so than as Seth Bullock... interesting.