‘Justified’ Season 2 debuts tonight on FX

I’d been meaning forever to watch FX’s series Justifiedthe official site is here — because I love actor Timothy Olyphant and I despair that he never seems to get enough work, or the right kind. But it kept slipping past me, not for the least which reason is that I kept seeing imagery like this:

and I figured the show for a Western, which isn’t a genre that I usually jump at the chance to experience more of. I don’t hate it… but I don’t love it, either. It’s not something that’s typically on my must-see list merely because of its genre, and with more than enough quality TV to keep up with already, even Olyphant’s presence wasn’t enough to get me watching.

But I decided that rather than dither by telling myself I had to catch up with Season 1, I would jump in with the preview DVDs FX sent me of the first three episodes of Season 2… and I’m so glad I did.

First off, and most surprising, Justified isn’t a Western. Or, rather, it is, but not like I was thinking. Set in modern-day rural Eastern Kentucky — not 19th-century wherever — this is the TV counterpart to the unexpectedly chilling movie Winter’s Bone, giving us a glimpse of the rural poor that pop culture usually studiously avoids. Olyphant is Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, originally from the area and just transferred back. In these first three episodes, he’s dealing with a potential child molester, pot growers (who actually are not within his jurisdiction, though they may be connected to crimes that are), and, among others, a local grocer played by the awesome (and also criminally underused) Margo Martindale, who is so much more than what she seems that when she does show her true colors, you’re entirely certain you must be misreading what’s happening. The people are desperate, undereducated, their talents underutilized in an economy that isn’t so much depressed as almost nonexistent.

Among them walks Givens, given to cowboy affectations like his hat, but full of understanding — and sometimes even sympathy — for them, because he is them. He’s got the usual fictional-cop problems with women and authority, but they’re handled with more than a bit of a wink by the show, which rolls its eyes at him and his quirks… an attitude that Olyphant himself easily gives the character over to as well. It’s not that Givens is a cartoon: not at all. It’s that even he recognizes that it’s hard to be a real cowboy when cowboys are now seen as cartoons.

After seeing these three fantastic, engrossing episodes, I really will make a point of catching up with Season 1 [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]. But I won’t let it stop me from continuing on with Season 2 immediately. I just can’t wait to find what out what happens with– well, no spoilers. Suffice to say that this is far more engaging a modern Western, populated by characters who are compelling and terrifying in varying proportions, than I could ever have expected. And Givens is a role that takes excellent advantage of Olyphant’s talent and palpable charisma. I despair no more for him.

Justified returns to FX tonight at 10pm Eastern.

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