Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX. Four episodes into the second season.
I have a weakness for the police procedural, but even I have to admit that it’s not exactly the most creative or challenging of genres. It’s comfort food: a generally predictable, self-contained story tied up in an hour by a few familiar, simple characters. Not much to it. Sure, procedurals occasionally attempt some overarching threads, but those almost always feel tacked on and irrelevant. I might be fond of the detectives—effectively bonding with them is part of the point of a good procedural—but I simply have never cared about Lennie Briscoe’s meth-addict daughter on Law & Order, Catherine Willows’s strained relationship with her father on CSI, or Kate Beckett’s murdered mother on Castle. Those storylines feel too artificial, too contrived, too “We need to give Jerry Orbach something for his Emmy reel.” That’s the kind of thing that made me a bit of a purist (prone to dramatically overstating my case) when it comes to the genre.
The genius of Justified, the FX drama now in its second year, is that it takes the bones of the procedural and fleshes them out in a way that feels organic rather than manufactured, even by my dogmatic standards. The protagonist is a deputy U.S. marshal working a variety of cases in eastern Kentucky—capturing fugitives, transporting prisoners, guarding judges, handling assets seized by the federal government—so it is, undoubtedly, a procedural, just like its lesser marshal-centric siblings In Plain Sight and Chase. Yet Justified transcends the genre, elegantly knitting together character threads and an overarching plot with the single-episode storylines. Sometimes those one-off stories—which are often beautifully constructed in and of themselves—comment on the larger action and sometimes directly affect it (and it’s not always easy to distinguish which is which at the outset), but the result is a procedural-that’s-not-a-procedural—or perhaps simply a procedural that has expanded my notion of what a procedural can be.