Watching the final few episodes of "Justified" (which ended its season this week) as well as "Southland" (which may or may not be returning next year) and the more pretentious (but truly compelling) "The Killing", I found myself thinking, a lot, about Don Siegel, the mid-century hardboiled director whose films epitomized an unpretentious, corrosive vein of American cinema when there was more to American cinema than spectacle, colon comedies, and varieties of low-budget.
It’s become a commonplace to say that television has become the repository of character-driven drama; what’s becoming clear is that the kind of complex crime film in which Siegel excelled is now only to be found on the home screen.
"Justified" and "Southland" in particular are precisely the kind of crime stories that used to fill the schedule: rich in character, morally complex, and revelatory of place. There’s a truly refreshing lack of pretention in both shows’ story-telling: they pretend to simply entertain and can be taken as such by any casual viewers.
As "Justified" has unfolded through its three seasons, Graham Yost and his writing staff have evolved a truly ingenious way of keeping the series fresh: call it an accretion of villains.
Raylan Givens is a U.S. Marshal, and therein lies a story-telling problem: the marshals’ service jurisdiction is limited. By surrounding Raylan with miscreants he knows (and anchoring the show in a specific location) as well as keeping open cases, the writers hide the fact that Raylan’s main job is chasing fugitives. (If you’re chasing a fugitive, you don’t actually to get to interact with your antagonist.)
The one weakness the series had in its second season was that it tended to treat its Appalachian characters in a stereotyped manner. By adding Detroit interloper Robert Quarrells to the mix – and then broadening out with the barbecue-and-butchery of Mykelti Williamson’s Limehouse – the stew was greatly thickened. Season two’s Dickie Bennett was retained and given a new running arc. I’d put good money down that Limehouse will be around for season four. (As for Quarrells, I’d say bets are hedged.)
Instead of simply having a closed story with a new villain for each year, Justified is doing something new: it introduces a new target each season but keeps at least one bad guy from each previous season. The world of the show thus gets richer with each new year.
The final episode (teleplay by Fred Golan from a story by Yost) went deep into the acid bath of family; in its last scene (big spoiler alert here), Raylan was telling his pregnant ex-wife how his father Arlo had nearly committed patricide, literally choosing to kill his own son in defense of a surrogate who just happens to be the man Raylan most despises in the world.
This is dark stuff, yet, unlike "The Killing" (whose dour Scandinavian ancestry somehow survives its American adaptation), Justified manages to be as light-touched as it is acidic. No wonder I’m reminded of Siegel.
Finally, a tip of the hat to "Southland," which has been flying far under the radar. It’s been the best procedural on TV for years – despite having lost budget, characters, and creator Ann Biderman. Like "Justified," "Southland" goes about its business without pretense but with truly compelling characters and a quiet insistence that it will cover all of L.A., from the richest to the poorest neighborhoods. It’s that social complexity that has made the show sing. Let’s hope this season was not a swan song.