Your next box set: Justified

It's the improbable mix of sweetness and brutality that gives this compelling series about smalltown marshal Raylan Givens its power

When US marshal Raylan Givens shoots a fugitive in Florida, the killing is deemed "justified" – but he is still sent back to Harlan, the poor white mining town in Kentucky where he grew up, to cool his heels and reconnect with community policing. That's the somewhat unpromising premise of Justified, but it's the characters of Harlan that make this series so compelling.

The town has a strange code that demands politeness at all times, so Givens will ask after a crook's family even as he sticks a gun in his face; and Boyd Crowder, his former mining buddy, is unfailingly courteous to women, despite being a white supremacist pyromaniac. Even as he polices the meth-heads, dealers and pot-growers, Givens, played with an understated air of menace by Timothy Olyphant, never forgets he grew up with these people. And if he ever does, they are quick to remind him.

As you would expect of a series based on some Elmore Leonard stories, Justified's low-life characters are richly drawn. Take crime family matriarch Mags Bennett, who will kill a rival drug-dealer one day and take in a young orphan girl the next; or Crowder, as happy firing a rocket-launcher at a church as he is helping an old lady across the road. It's this improbable mixture of sweetness and brutality that gives Justified, two series in with a third due next year, its power. You never know what's coming next: a winning smile or a gunshot.

The Harlan code, forged by grinding poverty, perfectly epitomises smalltown USA, where people think small and hate big. As Mags Bennett tells an outsider: "We got our own kind of food, our own music, our own liquor. We got our own way of courting and raising children and our own way of living and dying."

And through it all strides Givens in boots, stubble and stetson, a lawman who doesn't pull his gun unless it's to kill. "Once you start lying to me," he tells one Harlan unfortunate, "there's gonna be a river between us with no bridge to cross."

Contributor

James Donaghy

The GuardianTramp

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