A soft-spoken but deadly lawman. A tipped Stetson. A quick-fire gun battle in a Kentucky mining town. Despite the familiar Western tropes, the action is unfolding in the present day on FX's new drama series Justified, which launches tonight, and is based on a character created by bestselling novelist Elmore Leonard.
Timothy Olyphant ( Damages) plays Raylan Givens, a disgraced U.S. Marshal who is forced to return to his hometown after he shoots a fugitive in Miami—a "justified" act that is in keeping with his strict moral code. He's a man of his word, has a penchant for cowboy hats and justice, and doesn't make idle threats. In other words, he's the perfect Elmore Leonard character. Justified is earning FX rave reviews, with Time's James Poniewozik calling it "quite a weapon," the San Francisco Chronicle's Tim Goodman ranking Olyphant's performance as "incredibly riveting," and TV Guide's Matt Roush calling it the "best new series, network or cable, of the midseason."
The show’s creator Graham Yost went so far as to give the writing staff bracelets reading “WWED” (“What Would Elmore Do?”), a constant reminder to stick to Elmore Leonard’s voice.
Justified's writer/executive producer Graham Yost ( Band of Brothers) has been a fan of Leonard's for more than 25 years, and he relished the chance to take Raylan Givens back to where he came from, a mining town in Harlan County, Kentucky, that's overflowing with unsavory folk and is the perfect place for a U.S. Marshal to ply his trade. But in turning Leonard's short story "Fire in the Hole" into a television series, Yost found that there were inherent obstacles.
"I always felt with Out of Sight and Get Shorty that one of the great things that Scott Frank did in writing those screenplays was let Elmore come through and use some of his dialogue wherever possible," Yost said. "There's probably about 60/40 Elmore to me in the pilot. But the next part of that is the challenge of doing that on a weekly basis and suddenly you don't have a story of Elmore's to adapt. You've got to come up with your own."
Yost and his writing staff pored over all of Leonard's novels to get "everyone in the Elmore mood" and instill the fact that they're essentially doing an Elmore Leonard television show on a weekly basis. Yost went so far as to give them all bracelets reading "WWED" ("What Would Elmore Do?"), a constant reminder to stick to Leonard's voice.
It's Leonard's trademark style that attracted Olyphant to the role. Olyphant is still best known for his role as Sheriff Seth Bullock on HBO's Deadwood, despite appearing in everything from television comedies like Samantha Who? to feature films like Scream 2 and The Crazies.
"What really attracted me was the fact that it was based on Elmore's work," said Olyphant. "I've been a big fan of his for a long time and quite honestly I always thought to myself, if I could just get my hands on an Elmore Leonard piece."
"The thing I find very appealing is the unpredictability of the characters," he continued. "Cops and criminals, there's just very little difference between them and they seem to be judging each other more or less just on who's an asshole or not and who is a man of their word."
The thin line between good and evil is a favorite Leonard trope, and Raylan Givens himself seems to be an anachronistic Western sheriff who should have been born a century or so earlier.
"Raylan is like some of the great Western heroes, Western actors like Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood and John Wayne in that he's not a shouter, he's not a yeller, he just basically says what he's going to do and he does it," said Yost. "He's very confident in his own abilities and you know doesn't have to resort to histrionics at all. Perhaps most importantly, he's got a good sense of humor."
According to Yost, it's the perfect role for Olyphant, given the similarities between the 41-year-old actor and the coolly confident U.S. Marshal.
"Tim is a very straightforward guy," said Yost. "He has a lot of charm. He's very funny, he's very smart. I think Raylan is a very intelligent character and so it's a natural fit for him in that way… Seth Bullock was a much darker, grimmer character in Deadwood. But I remember liking him so much as the bad guy in the last Die Hard. There was a great twinkle in his eye and that really appealed to me."
But every tin star-sporting Western sheriff needs a powerful adversary who's just as unpredictable and dangerous as he is. Justified has that in the character of Boyd Crowder, played by The Shield's Walton Goggins, who is slated to appear in roughly three-fourths of the episodes this season. The two share a past in the coal mines but, despite their friendship, they're on opposite sides of the law and—SPOILER ALERT!—Raylan is forced to take him down at the end of the pilot, firing a gunshot that seemingly kills Boyd.
"We had to think about that for a long time," said Yost about deciding to keep Goggins' Boyd around, rather than killing him off. "We just loved working with Walton [and] loved the character of Boyd Crowder. We all agreed that we would bring him back. It was just trying to do it without destroying the emotional impact of the scene where he gets shot and Raylan looks at him and says, 'We used to mine coal together.' It's not the most elegant thing in the history of television, but we tell ourselves Julianna Margulies died at the end of the ER pilot and they figured that out."
Besides supplying Justified with a charismatic villain, Goggins' Boyd also cements a serialized thread that runs underneath the 13-episode first season. While there are procedural cases of the week, the local characters in Harlan County allow for a bigger story arc. Raylan must contend with ghosts of his past: ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea), now remarried; his criminal father Arlo (Raymond Barry); and the romantic spark he shares with Boyd's ex-wife Ava (Joelle Carter), all while trying to keep the peace in a small town that's not big enough for all of them.
With Justified's roots in the Western, it raises the question: What happened to the once-mighty genre that hogged up nearly a third of broadcast network programming at one time and delivered some of feature films' most enduring icons?
"So many things that we think of in terms of the Western are very simple story elements that have survived the disappearance of the Western genre," said Yost. "But every now and again someone will do a movie set in the West. You have a modern Western to a degree with No Country for Old Men, and now of course the Coen Brothers are doing True Grit, which is a full-on Western. So it hasn't entirely died but… it doesn't have the same kind of prevalence as it used to."
Elmore, meanwhile, believes the Western isn't going anywhere, remaining steadfastly a mythic ideal for the anything-is-possible spirit of America.
"We like heroes," Leonard said, "We haven't been here that long, say 300 years, but we have all kinds of heroes."
Despite reports that Leonard would perhaps write a script for Justified, he quickly shot down that possibility.
"I wouldn't do that," he said. "I quit writing screenplays in '93. But I'm writing what I hope will turn out to be about 60 pages of Raylan Givens and what he's doing now, which they could put in any time but would be good in the second season."
To Yost, that's the coolest thing of all to come out of Justified. "After watching bits and pieces of subsequent episodes that Elmore hadn't written, he liked it so much that he decided to embark on another Raylan Givens short story… That's a nice vote of confidence."
Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a Web site devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment Web sites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.