TV Review: FX’s Brilliant ‘Justified’ Returns With Spectacular Premiere

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CHICAGO – Fans of “Justified,” which should be all fans of TV drama, couldn’t possibly be disappointed with the season premiere of one of the best programs on television, tonight, January 17th, 2012 at 9pm CST. It does exactly what a season premiere should do — calling back to the last season while setting the table for the next one. Like only the best dramas, the writers and producers of “Justified” find ways to make their creation deeper and more refined every year. Last year, it was my #8. It could easily go up this year. It’s the best drama on TV right now. Television Rating: 5.0/5.0
Television Rating: 5.0/5.0

The writers of “The Gunslinger,” the season premiere of “Justified,” wisely realize that there are a few loose ends from the devastating season finale of season two (recently released on Blu-ray and DVD, which we’ll get to at the end of this review). Most germane to one of the best scenes in the history of the show in the season premiere, Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter) was shot by Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies). Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) had essentially released Dickie to Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) with the understanding that he’d get him back for his justified vengeance. That didn’t happen and Boyd returns to Raylan near the beginning of the premiere, demanding what he’s owed. It’s a stunning scene, one of the best in the history of the show and another opportunity for Olyphant and Goggins to prove why they are among the best actors on TV. More on that later.

Photo credit: FX

The wounds of the end of season two of “Justified” are physical as well as moral. Raylan is recovering from a pretty bad gunshot wound, one that has left him in bed more than he’d like and even reduced his notorious reaction time when the clock strikes high noon and it’s time to draw. He has to deal with the weight of getting well enough to do the job that so clearly defines him while also coming to terms with the fact that Winona (Natalie Zea) is pregnant.

Photo credit: FX

Of course, a season premiere of a show like “Justified” can’t just wrap up loose ends from the one before. The “big bad” of the season must be at least introduced, much like Margo Martindale STOLE the first episode of season two (and had probably won her Emmy before it was even over…she will be missed this season). This year, the honor goes to the great-and-underrated Neal McDonough (“Band of Brothers,” “Boomtown,” “Captain America: The First Avenger”) as a sleazy businessman with ties to Raylan’s world (or at least that of his ex-wife-and-current-girlfriend’s past). McDonough is a great actor, a man who brings gravity to everything he does and one hopes that this role gives him a fame boost in the same way it did the similarly-underrated Martindale. The casting directors at “Justified” have done something similar with McDonough as they did with Martindale — find a great actor who has been working regularly for years and give them the juicy part they deserve.

The recurring guest stars — McDonough, Davies, etc. — are stellar but this show belongs to the regulars, the quartet that seems to get more impressive with every episode — Olyphant, Goggins, Carter, and Zea. (And that’s not meant as any slight at all to the Marshal service cast — Nick Searcy, Jacob Pitts, and Erica Tazel — who also seem to get more dramatically accomplished with every episode). The Crowders, Winona Hawkins, and, above all else, Raylan Givens have become, in less than three full seasons, some of the most engaging and memorable characters on TV. I love the choices made by all four of these actors in the first two episodes of season three of “Justified.” They know these characters through and through, and, consequently, never feel false. And yet they take risks. Ava is getting more confident (and even violent). Winona is clearly falling deeper in love with Raylan. Boyd is as pissed as he’s ever been. And Raylan seems more vulnerable than usual. All four actors are incredible.

Photo credit: FX

Finally, McDonough is not the only guest star in the season premiere of “Justified” that deserves a bit of praise. Desmond Harrington pops up as a total maniac, a complete 180 from his most popular role — Quinn on “Dexter.” Harrington is only in a few scenes in the season premiere but he’s stellar — menacing, unpredictable, and thoroughly entertaining.

That’s the key phrase for all of “Justified” — thoroughly entertaining. The second episode of the new season doesn’t falter at all from the premiere and I don’t expect this show to lose any dramatic tension all season. The writers have perfected the skill of writing a show like this one in that they know they need to have the occasional stand-alone story or case for Givens and his team to solve but they never lose track of the overall story. What I love about the premiere (and the episode that follows) is the defined repercussions of people’s actions. In most shows, the giant stash of weed that Boyd’s idiotic men stole from Dickie last year would never be seen again. A loose end. There are no loose ends in “Justified.” Every action has a reaction. And that depth of writing has led to the depth of character that elevates this program above its peers and places it firmly in the ranks of the best shows in the history of cable television. It’s easily the best one on right now.

Justified: The Complete Second Season
Justified: The Complete Second Season
Photo credit: Sony

If you need to catch up, the second season of “Justified” was just released on Blu-ray by Sony Pictures Entertainment and it looks spectacular. The HD transfer is as good (maybe even better) than watching the show in its original FX HD airing. That’s all we want — to be able to recreate the original experience again and again, maybe even with a bit more polish. The special features, listed below, are a nice collection for a show in 2012 but, given my clear love for the show, I would have liked a bit more like a commentary track or two, but the program itself makes it work a pick-up for any TV-on-Blu-ray collector.

Special Features:
o Outtakes
o Deleted Scenes
o On the Set of Justified
o Clans, Feuds & Apple Pie
o Talking Shop: Roundtable Discussion
o BD Live Enabled

“Justified” stars Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins, Joelle Carter, Natalie Zea, Nick Searcy, Jacob Pitts, Erica Tazel, Jeremy Davies, and Neal McDonough. The show returns to FX on Tuesday, January 17th, 2012 at 9pm CST. “Justified: The Complete Second Season” was released on Blu-ray and DVD on January 3rd, 2012. content director Brian Tallerico

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