Welcome to Previously On, a column that is keeping an eye on the latest returning TV shows, even when they’ve been away for a long time. In this edition, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews the FX revival miniseries, Justified: City Primeval.
If there’s a cooler 21st-century TV character than Timothy Olyphant’s Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, I haven’t come across them yet. Raylan is the sort of neo-Western hero who has at one time or another functioned as both the enthusiastic upholding of a classic American myth (the noble gunslinger) and an ongoing interrogation of that myth. He’s levelheaded, confident, quietly unshakeable, and so cool and attractive that at least one character – often a villain – always comments on how cute he is. And in Justified: City Primeval, the welcome return to the Elmore Leonard-inspired world viewers left behind eight years ago, the superstar character is just one compelling part of a wildly entertaining crime saga.
City Primeval takes a bold gamble early on, and it pays off. While Justified’s original run followed Raylan as he chased down criminals (and, sometimes, intense ex-friends), learned the limits of law and order, and made peace with his inner demons in his home county of Harlan, Kentucky, the new series cleverly strands him in Detroit, where Leonard’s novel of the same name (which actually featured a totally different protagonist) takes place – and where no characters we’re familiar with live. Detroit is a whole different ecosystem than the hollers and marshes Raylan is used to, and in a move that’s wise if not essential for a modern iteration of the series, he quickly understands that he’s an outsider in a place with a rich cultural legacy that doesn’t involve many cowboy-hat-clad white guys.
The new season introduces a whole host of new characters, and it’s a testament to the strength of both Leonard’s richly rendered world and new series creators Michael Dinner and Dave Andron’s grasp of what makes Justified great that each and every one of them is a positive addition. The best of the bunch is Aunjanue Ellis’s attorney Carolyn Wilder, a lawyer with aspirations of a judgeship whose patience is tested by both Raylan’s and her clients’ antics and a justice system that involves little justice to speak of. Her most noteworthy client is Clement Mansel (Boyd Holbrook), a classic Justified baddie with the excellent nickname “The Oklahoma Wildman.” Mansel is a loose cannon who just keeps getting away with murder. The season quickly shapes up into a face-off between him and Raylan, whose daughter Willa (Vivian Olyphant) ends up stuck with Raylan during this unexpected side quest. Vondie Curtis Hall and Adelaide Clemens also do excellent work as Clement’s less ruthless accomplices.
The season uses the murder of a public official and the theft of his blackmail-fueling little black book as the jumping-off point for conversations about not just the limitations of policing but the pervasive, poisoning corruption at the root of the criminal justice system. The show handles these topics deftly and with the smoothness expected from a series as well-paced as Justified, and its new mindset never feels at odds with the sense of ethical contemplation the show has always had. At times, Justified: City Primeval feels like a Western-noir mashup, and it’s an unusual genre splice that the show’s filmmakers and actors pull off with gusto. Though the season is more of a standalone than most revivals (don’t expect many characters from its initial run to pop in and say hello), it carries and considers the themes of its predecessor – including the responsibilities of fatherhood and the weight of taking a life – with subtlety and ease.
Justified: City Primeval also possesses an undeniable sense of style that puts many a streaming-era TV show to shame. The camera often follows characters – mostly Raylan and Mansel – from behind, shaping the mood of scenes around the slope of their shoulders and the pace of their steps. Just as Raylan himself is a sharpshooter, series filmmakers and cinematographers know exactly how to shoot a body, pulling viewers’ focus towards the many physical ways characters come together to hurt and help one another – or coolly stay at an arm’s distance. The edit is also incredibly tight. Justified often feels like one of the more low-key dramas on TV, a show that simmers more than it explodes, but the new season builds in tension (and comedy) with well-placed cuts, building in cliffhangers and jokes alike via expertly executed scene transitions. All of this is underscored by a stellar soundtrack that trades the old show’s Kentucky twang for Mansel’s more rock and roll-flavored listening habits.
Lithe camerawork helps make Raylan the coolest (anti)hero on TV, but Olyphant certainly isn’t sitting on his hands; the actor can convey not just confidence, love, and rage with a flicker of an expression but moral dissonance as well. Watching him slide back into the role with ease feels like an incredible treat, and when Raylan starts bantering with low-level criminals early on in the series, it feels like the show hasn’t lost any time at all. The rest of the cast meets him tit for tat: Ellis is the standout, but Holbrook embodies an enjoyably punchable swagger, Hall adds gravitas to the seedy criminal underworld, and Clemens is slyly excellent as the villain’s girlfriend, who hides her fear, repulsion, and self-destructive tendencies under a people-pleasing, ditzy persona.
Justified: City Primeval is one of the best shows on TV right now, and it just keeps getting better as it goes. The season finale is an all-time-great episode in a show known for excellent season-enders, an endcap that demonstrates just how well everyone involved in the revival knows these characters inside and out. Every aspect of the show is firing on all cylinders this season: rarely has a TV return ever felt so seamless.