Justified

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.

No doubt one key to the show’s quality is its pedigree: it’s based on the work of legendary novelist Elmore Leonard, with the pilot directly adapting his short story “Fire in the Hole.” From there, show creator Graham Yost and his team of writers move Leonard’s protagonist, Kentucky-born Raylan Givens, into original material, but they’ve retained the author’s flair for gritty but quirky characters, idiosyncratic dialogue, and unexpected plot turns—the kind than turn up when characters act according to their own interests, not to the interests of a paint-by-numbers plot.

Yost and company have also cast Justified very well. The smolderingly charismatic Timothy Olyphant plays Raylan with shrewd intelligence, a sharply observant eye, and understated shadings of repressed anger, and the supporting cast more than backs him up. The actors playing Raylan’s confederates in the marshal service aren’t always given much to do—though Nick Searcy gives a hilariously wry performance as Raylan’s boss—but those playing Raylan’s kin, friends, and antagonists (categories that tend to overlap) get terrifically meaty roles. Raymond J. Barry makes Raylan’s toxic father, Arlo, as compelling as he is loathsome, and Joelle Carter, playing the young self-made widow Ava Crowder, takes that noirish role and creates a character who is not quite a femme fatale but dangerous nonetheless in her own reckless, damaged way. M. C. Gainey was cruelly, coldly menacing last season as a local crime boss, and this season Margo Martindale has ably filled his shoes in a completely different way, finding a scary new spin on the stereotype of the steely Southern matriarch, with twitchy character actor extraordinaire Jeremy Davies playing one of her sons.

Olyphant’s strongest counterpart, however, is Walton Goggins, who gives a quietly rich performance as Boyd Crowder, a local ex-con who serves, in many ways, as a through-the-looking-glass version of Raylan himself. Both men grew up with pitiless criminal fathers and enough smarts to try to escape them—with varying degrees of success. I’ve read that the pilot originally called for Boyd to die but that Goggins was so good—and the chemistry between him Olyphant so striking—that the people behind the scenes hastily revised the screenplay to keep Boyd around to fight another day. I have no idea whether that’s true, but it certainly could be. Goggins is a marvelous, subtle actor who makes you hang on his every hushed word, no matter how repugnant. He brings out the best in the already outstanding Olyphant, and the pair of them inspires the writers, who are also outstanding, to some of their best work. Scenes between Raylan and Boyd are inevitably mesmerizing.

The thing that truly makes Justified, though, is the storytelling, marked by both a distinct show-don’t-tell philosophy and twisty, funny, Leonard-esque dialogue. (Between this and the practically Shakespearean Deadwood—both of which I adore—Olyphant has proved he can make even the most baroque lines sound natural and effortlessly cool.) Even if it aspired toward nothing more than procedural fare, Justified would be worth watching for the individual episodes’ short-story-perfect tales and dazzlingly well-drawn characters (Alan Ruck’s seemingly ineffectual dentist with a dark past life, W. Earl Brown’s volatile hostage taker who hasn’t quite sorted out his demands, Larenz Tate’s perilously impulsive ex-con and Joel McCrary’s dogged halfway house manager). The show’s serialized components only elevate it further, providing more depth and complexity and ratcheting tension to delectably high levels. The first season finale is a masterpiece of ever-shifting alliances, culminating in a thrillingly dramatic climax that earns the episode’s title, “Bulletville,” and the second season promises to be just as tight and suspenseful. I still have a soft spot for traditional, self-contained procedurals, but if this kind of storytelling, seamlessly marrying episodic plots with serialized elements, is the way of the future, you’ll see no complaints from me.