Posted by: Jeff | June 13, 2010

Justified Is Worth Your Time, Big Hollywood Not So Much

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Justified, which just wrapped up its first season on FX, the best new show on television. But it’s certainly up there. So I really shouldn’t begrudge anything positive being written about it in the blogosphere. Still, this Big Hollywood post by Alicia Colon is really pretty dumb, for three specific reasons.

First, it’s a case study in the victimhood approach Big Hollywood takes towards its commentary. The site doesn’t really have a coherent political vision of its own, conservative or otherwise; it’s more of a perpetually aggrieved reaction to the strawman of elitist, parochial, America-hating liberalism. Judging from the post, Colon’s primary reason for liking the show is the utilitarian role its “iconoclastic portrayal of the South” plays in her politics; liberal Hollywood stereotypes southerners, Justified does not, and thus a blow is struck in the name of conservatism! Yawn. That it’s actually, you know, an unusual and well crafted show is almost completely peripheral to her praise.

Second, I don’t think Justified’s portrayal of the South is actually all that iconoclastic. Colon’s contention that Hollywood has “always” stereotyped the region and its people is, from were I’m sitting, considerably off the mark. You’d think the only movies the woman has ever seen are Deliverance and Mississippi Burning. Just off the top of my head, I can think of Fried Green Tomatoes, Steel Magnolias, A Time to Kill, Monster’s Ball, Oh Brother Where Art Thou? and A Love Song for Bobby Long, all of which were set in the South and presented complex, sympathetic, and often positive southern characters. I suspect a more systematic review of Hollywood films over the last few decades would only reinforce my point.

Third, Colon’s use of Justified as a cudgel in political ape fights (not that I object to political ape fights per se) severely under-serves the show itself. As I said, she doesn’t say a word about its writing or technical craftsmanship, both of which are first rate. More than anything else, I’ve been struck by how leisurely the show is paced. Each episode comes closer than anything else of I’ve seen on television to capturing the literary quality of a short story. The plots are usually quite simple, there aren’t many scenes and each one lasts several minutes, and dialogue is given a chance to breath and unwind, thus building the characters and the relationships. The show is also willing to leave its main characters for long stretches, instead getting to know the particular eccentrics and personalities that pop up just occasionally or only once. On Justified, there is no such thing as a cardboard cutout or a throwaway character. Everyone gets a moment to shine, and to surprise you.

I will agree with Colon on one point, which is that Timothy Olyphant, playing the lead role of Raylan Givens, does an excellent job of capturing the strong and silent southern lawman, a character type that can easily descend into ham-handedness. (Colon praises John Wayne, but I can only imagine how horrid and clumsy Justified would be if The Duke were in Olyphant’s place.) Like Kyle Chandler, who has been playing a similar personality for four seasons now as Coach Taylor on Friday Night Lights, Olyphant seems to have figured out that these men are actually raging torrents of emotion, but they sublimate that emotion into body language — particularly the set of the jaw and the mouth. Watch Chandler in FNL. You can pretty much deduce his entire emotional world from the way he chews the inside of his bottom lip. I grew up in Texas, and knew several guys just like Taylor and Givens, and both portrayals are remarkably representative and organic.

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