Lone Gunman

Elmore Leonard's new series Justified brings an old-school western archetype into the 21st century

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Prashant Gupta / FX

Timothy Olyphant's U.S. Marshal updates his Deadwood sheriff.

It seems like TV networks have been talking about remaking the western for longer than they actually made them. Maybe the genre, which dominated TV drama in the '50s and '60s, is just too much of its time to thrive in a more gray-hatted era. HBO aired three seasons of Deadwood, a dark and poetic look at the Darwinian life of a mining camp, but that was less a remake than a rebuttal.

TV has taken stabs at making westernish series, however. The excellent but short-lived Firefly, for instance, was essentially a western set in space. And now, with the terrific new drama Justified (which debuts March 16), FX and author Elmore Leonard have taken a crucial figure from westerns — the haunted lone gunslinger — and plopped him in 21st century Kentucky.

The series follows Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), a U.S. Marshal who has been booted from a plum post in Miami after a high-profile shooting garnered unwanted publicity: he beat a mobster to the draw western-style, though at a table at a fancy restaurant. The bureau moves him to Harlan County, Kentucky, where Givens grew up and which he then escaped — running from, among other things, a criminal father who's now in jail.

Givens' bags are barely unpacked when he has a run-in with Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), an old coal-mining buddy who has become a white supremacist and bank robber. (The pilot is based on a Leonard story, "Fire in the Hole," and Givens' old entanglements at home are a continuing story in later episodes.) As he chases Boyd and his crew, the ghosts of the life he left — his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea), his old flame and Boyd's sister-in-law Ava (Joelle Carter), his as-yet-unseen jailed daddy — begin to attach to him.

Givens is a 19th century type — the series was titled Lawman until, of all indignities, a Steven Seagal reality show got to the name first — with a steely bearing, courtly mannerisms and a direct way of talking. Sitting through an inquiry panel investigating his use of deadly force, he interrupts his supervisor's bureaucratese answer and says cowboy-like, "Let's just keep it simple, huh? He pulled first. I shot him."

And he wears a hat, which, as it happens, is beige. That's appropriate, because we begin to see that Givens' life and character could easily have gone either way. Olyphant was also in Deadwood, as sheriff Seth Bullock, who shares more than just a badge with Givens. Bullock's devotion to the law was fierce and brutal, driven by a seething anger over injustices in his childhood.

Olyphant's Givens is less rigid and more likable, but his sense of duty also comes from a very personal and dark place. There's a remarkable scene in the pilot in which he uses the threat of his quick draw to talk down a thug with a shotgun pointed at Givens' head — "Can you rack in a load before I put a hole through you?" — which left me with a thorough man crush on him. But then he bashes the goon's face against a steering wheel for a bit of back talk, and for a fleeting second, a flash of pure fury glints in his eyes.

You begin to see here why his bosses wonder how quick-draw, hair-trigger Givens manages to have so many "justified" shootings and whether he isn't acting out some sort of vendetta psychodrama — or a death wish. Nor are they the first to wonder about him. As his ex-wife says after he politely pops by for what's meant to be a friendly chat (by way of breaking into her house in the middle of the night), "You're the angriest man I have ever known." His sartorial quirks mark him not just as a throwback but as a young man who's prematurely old: like many a western hero, there's something strong and tired about him at the same time.

Dark streaks aside, Justified is also, as you'd expect from Leonard (and writer Graham Yost, formerly of Boomtown), a funny show, with taut dialogue and a distinct sense of place. Its supporting characters are a riot of wiseass agents, sardonic thieves and big- and small-time hustlers. Its Harlan County is both timeless and of the moment, plagued with meth heads and skinheads and littered with overbuilt developments left over from the housing boom. (The fourth episode moves the action to Los Angeles as Givens chases a fugitive from his past. It's excellent as well, but the sunny setting changes the tone so much, to the lighter hard-boiledness of Leonard adaptations like Get Shorty, that it almost seems a different series.)

The result is a new-style western that's both entertaining and as mesmerizing as Givens' cold-blooded speech to the crook with the scattergun: "I want you to understand. I don't pull my sidearm unless I'm going to shoot to kill. That's its purpose, huh? To kill. So that's how I use it." Givens is still figuring out his own purpose, and in the compelling character study of Justified, Leonard, Yost and Olyphant have fashioned quite a weapon. I can't wait to see how they use it.