Watching the first couple of episodes of Justified’s fourth season triggered a sort of TV viewer sense memory, something very specific and personal — nostalgic, even. Afterward, I figured out what it was: Cheers. This show reminds me of Cheers.
Weird, I know, but bear with me: Despite the fact that Cheers was a sitcom about a bar full of lovable losers and Justified is a drama about cops and crooks and nobody on Cheers was ever poisoned by moonshine or got their arm lopped off with a meat cleaver (unless there’s a Very Special Episode I’m forgetting), the energy is similar. The stories on Justified are “high-stakes,” to use a hack screenwriter’s buzzword, and there are scenes of perversity, suspense and violence; but for the most part, it’s a laid-back series in the spirit of its inspiration, Elmore Leonard. It’s more comedic than dramatic, and driven by familiarity with its characters and setting. Its hardscrabble cops, crooks, and civilians do more or less what you expect them to do based on who they are; when they confirm your familiarity — like a dear friend slipping a shared joke into conversation — it’s comforting and funny. (Speaking of, there’s a joke in this season’s second episode between Raylan and his girlfriend involving crackers that was once shared by Cliff and Norm.)
Just as you knew that every Norm entrance would be greeted with a bar-wide chant of his name, you know every time U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) sits down with his boss, Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), he’ll get ribbed for being a problem employee. (“You keep addict hours,” Art tells Raylan, who’s separated from his pregnant wife and moonlighting as a skip tracer. “Come in late, go home early.”) Just as you looked forward to Carla smacking down Diane or Frasier for showboating their fancy book learnin’, you look forward to toothy crime boss Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) seeing through foes that are trying to deceive or exploit him, then taking them apart with language. (Boyd is one of the greatest talkers in TV history; he uses words as precisely as Raylan does bullets.) To say that the pleasures of Justified are the pleasures of a classic sitcom isn’t a slam at all, unless you look back on Cheers’ eleven-season run and think, It was a great show, but I’d take it more seriously if it had been darker. Few things in life are more pleasurable than reliably excellent entertainment that doesn’t constantly call attention to how good it is and that knows its characters so well that it can have them surprise you without betraying their essential nature.
Intriguingly, though, the first couple of episodes of season four suggest that Justified may try to test our familiarity. Much of the dialogue is about the possibility of damaged people truly and permanently changing their lives; because this is Justified, an American TV series that’s unusually comfortable discussing faith, sin, and the soul, the words salvation and redemption keep popping up.
The show has always been obsessed with the past’s chokehold on the present, and a couple of new plotlines threaten to nudge that idea into the foreground. One concerns a D.B. Cooper–like figure who died parachuting into Harlan County back in 1983 carrying a satchel full of drugs. Raylan’s now-incarcerated dad, Arlo (Raymond J. Barry), apparently had something to do with the guy, and when a couple of addicts discover the bag in the wall of a house they’re raiding for copper wiring, it dredges up the past and sets the criminal underworld buzzing.
The other plotline finds Boyd — who slogged through the power vacuum left by the death of Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) and emerged a kingpin — worrying about his profits. A new fundamentalist church has rolled into town, and it’s saving souls so fast that Boyd and his main squeeze, business partner and whorehouse madam Ava (Joelle Carter), see it as a threat to their bottom line. The church’s young pastor, Billy (Joseph Mazzello), is the new season’s most fascinating new character. He’s so earnest and eloquent that you feel sure the other shoe will drop and reveal him as a hypocrite or a secret criminal; but because this is Justified, a series that never tips its hand until it’s ready, there’s no way to know.
I will say that there’s a scene in the second episode between Billy and Boyd that’s one of the best the show has ever staged, and it’s all talk: a preacher and an ex-preacher facing off in a tent, having a long debate about faith and trust, motives and opportunities. The show’s star and producer Olyphant used to be on Deadwood, and he’s said that he and series showrunner Graham Yost are borrowing from that Western drama’s creator, David Milch. You can feel it this season, and not just because the recurring cast features so many Deadwood regulars. The scenes are longer and driven more by words than violence: talk as a form of action. The Deadwood-length sentences and monologues have a nineteenth-century musicality, twisting and turning, rising and falling. When, in the season premiere, the newly saved distributor refers to Boyd’s drugs as “poison,” Boyd replies, “Poison? Why, you don’t know your scripture! ‘He makes wine that gladdens the hearts of man.’ Psalms 104. What are our goods but modern-day wine, albeit in pill form?”
Don’t worry: Even though Justified is delving into the Big Issues (as it did in seasons two and three), it’s not suddenly full of itself; it’s just taking chances with tone and style, and even its more ostentatious flourishes are playful. For all its gore, gunfire, and criminal nastiness, it’s a joyous show; even when the characters are scowling, the show seems to be grinning at you. It’s that Elmore Leonard DNA that cinches it, I think. Although Olyphant, Yost, and their superb writing staff have little day-to-day involvement with the master, his spirit seems to guide their choices. It’s the spirit of an entertainer who wants to tell the truth about people without congratulating himself on his insight. It’s the voice of a wise man who’s been around and seen a lot and who knows that, sooner or later, all of these drama queens and kings will be fertilizing daffodils. Leonard has spent his life creating fiction that’s precise, relaxed, droll, and wise about human behavior, yet so much fun that even some fans are reluctant to call it what it is: art.