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."


James Donaghy

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Your next box set: Oz

Kathy Sweeney: Don't look for Dorothy, and Toto in Emerald City. Oz is unrelentingly grim drama

Kathy Sweeney

28, May, 2009 @11:01 PM

Damages | Your next box set
Your next box set: With its twists, turns and a hard-as-nails Glenn Close, Damages is a riveting drama, writes Kathy Sweeney

Kathy Sweeney

28, May, 2010 @7:00 AM

Article image
Your next box set: Boomtown

Original and offbeat police drama that explored cases from the differing perspectives of its seven main characters

Paul Brown

14, Feb, 2012 @2:30 PM

Article image
Your next box set: Mistresses
Late-night liaisons, lustful depravity, and a guest appearance by Joanna Lumley – talk about a guilty pleasure, writes Laura Barnett

Laura Barnett

19, Nov, 2010 @8:00 AM

Article image
Your next box set: Southland

Two cops – one a rookie, the other a veteran – tour the mean streets of LA in this raw, realistic crime drama, writes Jim Shelley

Jim Shelley

16, Sep, 2011 @9:11 AM

Article image
Your next box set: Luck

David Milch and Michael Mann's prematurely cancelled horse-racing drama creates a richly detailed and convincing world

Sarah Hughes

08, Nov, 2012 @6:29 PM

Article image
Your next box set: Medium

This underrated supernatural police procedural stars the excellent Patricia Arquette as Allison Dubois, part psychic investigator, part suburban mum, writes Michael Hogan

Michael Hogan

23, Aug, 2012 @3:00 PM

Article image
Your next box set: 24
Jack Bauer's real-time heroics were intense, addictive and occasionally absurd, but like nothing we had ever seen before, writes Daniel Bettridge

Daniel Bettridge

26, Apr, 2012 @3:54 PM

Article image
Your next box set: Braquo
Full of guns, knives, torture and the odd defenestration, Olivier Marchal's Braquo is as brutal and brilliant a cop drama as you could hope for, writes Phelim O'Neill

Phelim O'Neill

14, Jun, 2012 @3:00 PM

Article image
Heimat | Your next box set

Heimat, Edgar Reitz's epic saga about life in a German village shows the sweep of history through a family's eyes, writes Tim Lusher

Tim Lusher

25, Jun, 2010 @5:45 AM