The benchmark for excellence in television is the writing followed closely by its interpretation by the actors. There have been very few really creative television programs, and most have dragged out a good thing far too long. “House, MD” started out interesting and now is a caricature of its previous life and refuses to die. “24” was brilliant for the first few years, than simply ran out of ideas, becoming a predictable clone of itself.
Pound for pound, the all time greatest TV show of the last 20 years or so is “Deadwood” (HBO). Head writer David Milch remarked in an interview that it was just an accident of nature. They got a blank check to create anything and take it anywhere they wanted. They found actors no one ever heard of, they wrote incredibly creative scripts and the actors lived the roles to perfection. Deadwood was simply incredible. The true believers simply stopped their lives an hour a week to watch it.
One of the revelations learned was the fact that they could make it burn bright but they couldn’t keep it up indefinitely. They vowed to make Deadwood flash across the sky in a brilliant display, then quietly disappear before it got stale. Deadwood was stopped after three seasons, despite heavy demand for its continuance. The principal actors moved on, some more successful than others.
One of those actors is Timothy Oliphant, who is now playing Raylan Givens in “Justified” (FX, Wednesday night 10 pm), a TV drama that I will eventually rate as “almost as good as Deadwood”. I don’t believe anything will ever match the “Deadwood” in my lifetime, but I’m willing to be surprised.
“Justified” is not for the usual couch potato remote clicker. The story line is complex, involuted and takes it’s time getting where it wants to go. Initial reviewers yawned. Another dime a dozen laconic cowboy getting crosswise with the system. But the true believer knew the stage was being intricately set, and it took a year to do so. Then it started getting interesting, and now due to an amazing array of little known actors including Walton Groggins as Boyd Crowder and Margo Martindale as Mags Bennett.
The key in “Justified” as it was perfected in “Deadwood” is a slowly accumulating story line that slowly draws the audience in then traps them. The principal protagonist acts to bring together the talent of those around him. In “Deadwood” the incomparable Ian McShane acted as a conductor for the symphonic interpretation. Oliphant learned his lessons well, and “Justified” succeeds in the same mode.
Both “Deadwood” and “Justified” are rare events that find form from void, coming together like random molecules creating an element, or they don’t. Sometimes they form a lethal mutation. Milch’s subsequent effort on HBO “John from Cincinnati” flopped immediately. Similarly, Michael Cimino created the brilliant “Deer Hunter” in 1978, then in 1980 directed “Heaven’s Gate”, a box office disaster that single handedly collapsed United Artists and destroyed the director’s career. Vincent Canby comparing it to “a forced four-hour walking tour of one’s own living room.
I think “Justified” started out good, got better and is now in it’s second season approaching brilliant. We are lucky to have “Justified” and we probably won’t have it for long.
That said, don’t think you can tune in tomorrow without knowing the extensive backdrop. It won’t make any sense. If you have an interest, you will need to go back to the beginning and fill yourself with the ambience. Sorry, price to pay to absorb the best. Not willing to put that into it? Seek out “Celebrity Apprentice”.’ Makes no sense no matter when you find it.
Justified got a whopping 8.9/10 review from IMDB and a recent Peabody Award. I give it an “almost as good as “Deadwood”, with a bullet.