Justifying the Comedy of Justified

Justified recently finished its third season, which has been as wild and crime-ridden as any other. This year has seen murderers, kidney thieves, drug wars, and just about every sort of trouble you might find in Eastern Kentucky. Granted, the show is about the exploits of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, so the criminal element is to be expected. Less expected, however, is how damn funny the show is.

Part of the show’s humor comes from its source material. Justified is based on “Fire in the Hole,” a short story by Elmore Leonard. For the uninformed, the 86 year-old Leonard has written countless crime stories and novels, with adaptations of his work including cooler than cool films like Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Jackie Brown. A sardonic sense of humor can be found throughout Leonard’s oeuvre, so naturally it has permeated Justified.

The teaser implies a sly wit, perhaps, but it certainly doesn’t present Justified as one of the funniest shows on television. Unfortunately the other teasers this season haven’t done a good job of showing comedy either, instead choosing to sell an oblique coolness. It’s a shame, especially since the advertising team for season two absolutely nailed the tricky comedic tone of Justified. Watch:

Quick cuts and shaky camerawork aside, these promos show Justified at its best: a taut crime show punctuated by comic asides, all while proudly displaying its pop-culture influences.

Pop-culture references have long been a source for jokes (The SimpsonsFamily Guy, any sitcom of the past 20 years). Even sections of Leonard’s own work feature characters dissecting pop-culture minutiae; no wonder Tarantino adapted one of his novels. And Justifiedcan use such references simply for jokes as well as the best of them. Consider a recent exchange. (Context: Quarles is Wynn’s villainous employer.)

Raylan: The S.S. Quarles is going under. You best swim like hell to get clear or the whirlpool will take you down with it.Wynn: I believe they disproved that on Mythbusters.

But the references provide more than wisecracks in Justified. The show is aware of the genre it inhabits, and this self-awareness impacts both the writing and the characters themselves. With that in mind, the program on the air that Justified most resembles isn’t any detective show — it’s Community. Both shows use the conventions of their genres (crime drama and sitcom, respectively) only to deconstruct them with a knowing since of humor. Here’s a scene from this season of Justified.

At first, this appears to be a classic Russian roulette scene, with the addition an oxy pill providing a slight deviation. But as the scene progresses, the show piles on mini-twist after mini-twist until a suspenseful scene unlike any other has emerged. The defied expectations also lend humor to the scene, as both the characters and the audience share the same assumptions regarding Russian roulette. There might not be as much comedy compared to when Community upends a genre convention, but that’s a result of the two shows belonging to wholly different genres.

Looking beyond the current programming slate, an even better analogue to Justified can be found in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Both are ostensibly genre shows that employ a level of self-awareness rarely seen in either crime or horror, which results in consistent comedy through the genre-related drama. Buffy’s comedic legacy remains intact, as Justified’s hopefully will when it finishes, especially since both shows can be pretty hilarious even when they don’t exploit their genres.

Justin Geldzahler really likes the first five letters of his name. He remains ambivalent about the sixth.

Justifying the Comedy of Justified