TV Reviews

Justified: City Primeval – TV Review

This review contains minor spoilers.

The legend of Justified doesn’t command the same DISCOURSE-shifting attention as other shows from that Peak TV boom period – your Breaking Bads, your Mad Mens, your Game of Throness.  But those who buy into it, either during the FX series’ original six season run from 2010 to 2015 or in the years after as it hit various streaming services, are the kind of rhapsodising true believers who will throw around such declarations as “one of the greatest and most underappreciated shows of all-time.”  And they’re right to.

Justified was a neo-Western about an old-fashioned gunslinger of a Deputy U.S. Marshal, the forever-cowboy-hatted Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant in an all-time lead performance), reassigned against his will to the rotten Kentucky county, Harlan, he’d grown up in and successfully escaped from.  Across six seasons, he’d tangle with a succession of criminal organisations both rooted in and ingress from outside of Harlan, be forced to reconcile with his family’s own criminal past, and engage in a tight-nit tête-à-tête with old coal-mining buddy turned hustling criminal Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins in an all-time co-lead performance).

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Whilst that might not seem all too special, the real secret to Justified’s success – besides an uncanny knack for casting the perfect actor in nearly every single role, no matter how small, and having them give a sensational performance – was its writing.  The series was based on the works of crime and western writer Elmore Leonard, and the writing staff, headed up by Graham Yost, nailed Leonard’s famously complex-yet-clear plotting, hardboiled pulpy dialogue, and sly humorous streaks to utter perfection.

It could be the most exciting show on television, the funniest show on television, and the coolest show on television; oftentimes all at once.  As a writer myself (albeit not one of fiction), I was frequently jealous of Justified’s gift for gab.  And, across six years of television, the show not only never once put out a season less than ‘very good,’ it also ended perfectly with a series of definitive narrative and character choices which were ultra-satisfying.  Years later, you say the phrase “we dug coal together” to a Justified fan and they’ll probably get misty-eyed or at the very least visible goosebumps.

Photo by Chuck Hodes/FX © Courtesy of FX Networks 2022.

Over the years, the legend of Justified grew ever bigger and ever more solidified.  Which, therefore, begs the question of why the hell you would want to risk digging that casket back up for another shot.  Why potentially sully a beloved series which pulled off the miracle of ending exactly when and how it needed to by tacking on a postscript?

The answer, to hear City Primeval showrunners (who had previous credits on the original Justified) Dave Andron & Michael Dinner tell it in the run-up to the limited series’ US TV debut, was ‘why not?’  City Primeval, the Leonard novel that this revival is directly adapting, did not feature Raylan Givens – his precursor Raymond Cruz (memorably embodied by Paul Calderon in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight and who gets a drive-by appearance here) is the protagonist – but the pair felt that he could slot in quite seamlessly and let them explore new facets of Raylan’s character.  Plus, as they repeatedly stressed, City Primeval would be “in a way, its own thing” rather than trying to revive the ghost of Justified.

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That context is important because anyone coming in expecting more of that classic serio-comic Southern-fried neo-Western Justified sauce will be disappointed.  Aside from the very last 15 minutes of the season – and I now have to switch to the term “season” cos that ending makes it very clear this “limited series” is angling hard for a second go – City Primeval is indeed its own thing.

The tone (grimmer and straight-laced, lacking in much of the dark humour of Justified), the visual language (taking the artistic shadowy grime of recent prestige dramas like True Detective with a cold blue tint to many shots), the music (alternating between standard rising pulses and a bluesy stomp with only the occasional country lick), and even the profanity (profuse and powerful) are all markedly different.  We’re not in Harlan County, or even Raylan’s official post of Miami, anymore.

Photo by Chuck Hodes/FX © Courtesy of FX Networks 2022.

In fact, in classic Raylan Givens fashion – as one character late in the series notes, the man has a propensity for “stepping into a world of shit and somehow coming out with it all scraped off” – he’s not even supposed to be in Detroit.  Whilst on a pre-college road trip with his now-teenaged daughter Willa (Vivian Olyphant), an attempted carjacking sees him hauling two wanted criminals into the Detroit justice system only for his extracurricular means of doing so to see them embarrassingly let off scot-free.

As a payback favour to the Detroit Police Department, Raylan gets assigned to help discover the man behind a failed car-bombing on crooked Judge Alvin Guy (Keith David).  But when, right after quickly resolving the plot, Judge Guy is killed by notorious psychopath and walking lucky-charm Clement Mansell (Boyd Holbrook) who also makes off with the man’s little black book of dirt on all the city’s top movers and shakers, Raylan’s incorruptible sense of justice compels him to stick around and bring down Mansell.

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From there, City Primeval the series mostly unfolds the same way as City Primeval the novel, give or take some modern-day updates and shifting around of beats to accommodate Raylan’s presence.  This also means that, for decent chunks of the season, Raylan’s more of a passive figure who reacts to the plot or disappears from the screen for extended periods of time.  It’s arguably the right move since Raylan is a true fish-out-water whose investment in the case lacks the major personal stakes and connection of classic Justified, instead being driven by the character’s obsessive inability to let things lie.

For a series that loves its flowery theme-underlining monologues, Raylan’s increasing years, growing disillusionment with having to bend things in the pursuit of justice whilst still being able to sleep at night, and slight loss of a step mostly go unspoken.  Olyphant, who slides that Stetson back on like the character never left him, is instead left to convey those aspects through gruffer line deliveries, a mildly less confident body posture as the series goes on, and eyes that let slip real frustration and conflict which tells so much with so little.  When the writing starts cracking open some noticeable holes, Olyphant is right there to patch them up.

Photo by Chuck Hodes/FX © Courtesy of FX Networks 2022.

His opposite, Clement Mansell, is the kind of despicable snake who destroys practically everything he touches yet nobody can ever seem to do anything about.  As embodied with riveting scumbag-ery by Holbrook – who makes a brilliant meal out of the dialogue put in front of him – he’s a petulant, impulsive, quick-to-anger son-of-a-bitch who believes everything and everyone should bend to his will for no other reason than entitlement.  Even his attempts at affable personability are slimy and repellent.

Raylan and Clement don’t share a whole lot of screen together, perhaps a creative decision to avoid comparisons to the old Raylan/Boyd dynamic, but he holds up his share of the narrative very well.  There’s little complexity or humanity to Clement, but Holbrook is so captivating to watch in the role that the lack of those things becomes a strength.  Raylan and the DPD spending so much of the season trying to figure out a motive for Clement’s killing of Judge Guy when the simple truth, it was just an impulsive choice made out of road rage cos Clement is not a man with any code beyond ‘fuck you got mine,’ is staring them in the face the entire time.  (The wider social commentary on bad men in power that fact contains is not lost.)

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Raylan and Clement’s supporting cast, however, can leave a bit to be desired.  This is not the fault of their actors, who are all strong performers imbuing as much weight into their characters as they can.  Aunjanue Ellis gets multiple standout scenes as Clement’s unwilling defence attorney Caroline Wilder, willing to make unsavoury yet maybe-justifiable moves to secure her future, but her eventual romance arc with Raylan lacks believable chemistry despite both actors’ best efforts.

Vondie Curtis-Hall cuts a tired, regretful figure as bar owner Marcus Sweeton who used to run with Clement’s crew before snitching for his own safety, but his character’s motivations are sometimes inconsistent in ways that go beyond Elmore Leonard’s predilection for criminals who are never as smart as they think they are.  Adelaide Clemens channels her best Jackie Brown Bridget Fonda as Clement’s girlfriend and partner Sandy Stanton, but the season struggles to give her stuff to do as it nears the end.  And there’s so little to say about the DPD officers working with Raylan, until the last two episodes where this turns out to have been a somewhat deliberate choice, that I don’t even remember their names after eight hours of TV.

Photo by Chuck Hodes/FX © Courtesy of FX Networks 2022.

The original Justified was always excellent at sketching instantly memorable side characters: Wynn Duffy, Dewey Crowe, David Vasquez, even Karl Hanselman (the gallery owner who bought up Hitler paintings so he could burn them to spite his long-dead Nazi-collaborator father).  And even though the series never quite figured out what to do with fellow Deputies Tim Gutterson and Rachel Brooks, it often found time to sling a good line or character beat their way which made them stand out.

City Primeval never really accomplishes that and frequently silos its cast away in their own bubbles without much crossover, leaving the plotting, dialogue and overall vibe to help carry things along.  In its favour, the show does have a very good vibe.  Whilst the pacing can be sluggish at times, City Primeval does share that Justified spirit of simply being a great show to sink into.  A tangible seedy sense of place (Chicago doing a good job of standing in for Detroit), hardboiled dialogue that sounds excellent coming out of the cast’s mouths, and a visual language that is in keeping with modern prestige drama yet can be striking in its own way to look at (aside from whenever some abysmal CG is required to depict explosions).

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When City Primeval moves away from its cop v. gambit-pile-up crims comfort zone, however, things get a bit dicey.  Willa’s whole deal is a straight-up misfire.  Whilst vital for setting Raylan’s mind where it needs to be for his choices at the story’s end, the character herself is a bog-standard moody semi-neglected teen done absolutely no favours by Vivian Olyphant’s distractingly stiff performance.  When she’s shipped off home at the end of episode three, the season’s focus and quality instantly pick up.

There’s also an admirable effort to try and address the growing awareness of corruption and brutality within law enforcement in the years since Justified went off the air, whether by cutting back on Raylan’s habit of gunning down baddies or picking at the scabs of the DPD’s unethical approach to policing.  But, as one would likely expect given both source materials’ roots as pulpy neo-Westerns about lawmen with inflexible ideas of justice, these efforts get stymied by the need for a clear-cut black-and-white morality dynamic between Raylan and Clement.  There’s a disconnect between those gestures towards acknowledging that Raylan’s treatment of criminals often goes against their protected rights, and playing straight a classic Raylan scene of him trying to bait Clement into a shootout with the same gun used to kill Judge Guy.

(Also, the last 10 to 15 minutes of the final episode are… certainly a creative choice which was made.  And, apart from mentioning that they have nothing to do with the events of the season up to that point so feel free to pretend it ends beforehand, that’s all I’ll say on the matter.)

Photo by Chuck Hodes/FX © Courtesy of FX Networks 2022.

Somewhat of a mixed bag overall, then.  Despite my many critiques and tempered praise, I do want to make it clear that I enjoyed my time with Justified: City Primeval.  Once divorced from that towering legacy, what’s here is a very solid crime drama with a slew of strong performances, a pair of compelling central figures, and an intoxicating mood.  Sometimes, as with the episode following an attempted revenge spree by the city’s Albanian Mafia or much of the final two episodes, it even taps back into the thrilling buzz of its parent series without sacrificing the new feel and language it had been building up.  But, just as often, it can also be frustratingly lacking in that special sauce, both in comparison to Justified and on its own merits.

If we are going to get more adventures with Raylan Givens, as the season’s epilogue evidently hopes, I’m not going to say no – because I’m never going to say no to Timothy Olyphant in a Stetson.  But I hope those revival jitters have been sufficiently cleared.  Legends can make for harsh comparisons, no matter how justified.

Justified: City Primeval is now streaming on Disney+ under the Star banner.

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