Wednesday, March 28, 2012


The justification of writers has changed. Once a writer was a ink-stained genius scribbling in an attic to capture a vision of life. Now a writer is a guy in khakis who sits at a table in a “writers’ room,” struggling with other writers to create a performance fulfilled by actors -- who also have opinions about what will or won’t “work.” The difference is that historically the “writer” might not make any money and might not be famous until after he or she dies. But the writers on TV serieses get a salary. For them to become famous would be surprising. They are collaborators who might not even get their name on the credit crawl, since that is open to negotiation for purposes of reward, punishment, and collaboration. Maybe even better NOT being listed if the product stinks.

“Justification” for actors is jargon meaning the reason for the character to be doing something -- is it revenge? Is it because of the way they were raised? Is it because they’re in a really bad mood? Something close to it is the necessity of “beats and arc,” which means that each scene has to fit along a logical plot arc and earn itself in terms of upping the tension or explaining or setting something up for later, but also beats must fit inside a Procrustean form of a certain number of minutes, divided to allow for commercials. (In one commentary, the writers speak of a “cheesy” old-fashioned TV trick being to divide a suspense scene by putting the advertising break right in the middle of it. More often now there will be a completion and then a new beat begun.) This is structure on the level of a sonnet: rhythm, rhyme pattern, line length, all related in terms of a main idea and exploring given characters, that’s a self-contained story but maybe advances a series-long thread. Except in a sonnet there is no star actor to argue about what his “justification” is. Occasionally an actor will become so argumentative and rigid that s/he will be dropped from the series. (Melissa Leo on Homicide.)

In the case of “Justified,” the bad guy who was meant to be in only the pilot was so riveting when embodied by Walton Goggins, that he was resurrected from a fatal gunshot and kept in play for the whole series, which shifted the story from being about one lawman to being about two adversaries, almost a buddy movie with conscious references to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In fact, the whole series began to have a Gog/Magog aspect with two soul-less “daddies” as well as two painfully thin, very long-stemmed blonde actresses who could have switched roles without the viewer really noticing.

The justification for the series called “Justified” is Elmore Leonard’s tough-guy mysteries with a sort of Western pentimento. His style is tightlipped and ironic dialogue and close observation of character and setting. Inside knowledge about stuff. A lot of is based on class -- whiny incompetence being the indicator of the low class and resourcefulness being the marker of those who can think. Raylan Givens is a sort of late Clint Eastwood type without the snarl. That is, he’s a law-and-order man who tries to go by the rules. Mostly.

There's a lot of description people will recognize. “Oh, yeah. I know where that is. I been there.” Or “Gee, I had a car (or gun) like that once. Wisht I had it back now.” But because the writers and producing crews of the television show are in California and don’t know the Florida or Kentucky locations that well, they lose detail and specificity. Conscientiously wearing their bracelets that say WWED (What Would Elmore Do), they think about the action and the dialogue more than the setting.

I had a big problem with “Deadwood” and stopped watching it early because it seemed Manhattan show moved to a muddy canyon. They say there is a lot of crossover between fans of “Justified” and “Sex in the City.” It drifts towards the suburban generic without much convincing tough Kentucky ambiance. This is not “Winter’s Bone.” There are no kids and animals underfoot. No piles of old rusty debris. The kitchens are out of interior decorating magazines.

Goggins’ storyline is closer to authentic, maybe because of him. The converted church, the camp in the woods -- more like it. Goggins goes into near-ludicrous hippity-hop, eye-rolling mannerisms that make him seem on the verge of psychosis. The high point (or low point) of the Goggins’ story is when he is run off from his flock, hears shots, and returns to find them not only dead but hanging from the trees -- heads down, by one arm, every which way. It’s a little unbelievable -- could it have happened so quickly? But it had the grotesque, horror-echo of the Gothic South. The scene was almost abandoned because suspending actors is so expensive. (Who knew?)

The plot points are pretty much split between banter and violence, with some room for squirmy sex. What this show -- and most shows -- lack, that “The Wire” had, was the social action edge, the heartfelt wish to make the world a better place. Maybe this is the other component of Goggins’ storyline that works. Maybe the writers intended his conversion to be hollow and phony, but he manages to make it sincere. He comes perilously close to making Raylan seem flat.

There is a sequence of cinematography that is worth remarking. Goggins is getting out of prison and Raylan escorts him into a wide courtyard that is absolutely flat with a high white wall around it. (It was a real prison but augmented with CGI to get the effect.) They stand in this featureless place for a moment, then the roll-up door to the outside opens and the evening sun flooding in throws their long shadows across the cement. Goggins goes out, doing his over-the-top crazy moves, and Raylan stands, looking noble. And now I see that I’ve slipped into the reality of the actor doing the bad guy and let the good guy remain only a character in a story. Is that good or bad?

I’ve never read Elmore Leonard so I dutifully trotted over to the library and checked out “Riding the Rap,” the novel that is about Raylan Givens. It’s totally different from “Justified,” though Leonard himself swears he likes the series. The book all happens in Florida with much local detail, most of the action is the bad guys blundering and double-crossing each other, and there’s little sex. The title comes from advice Raylan gives a felon: that life, like a prison sentence, goes along better if a guy just “rides the rap” out to the end. He’s not a joyful person. But Goggins is and he gleefully steals this TV series.

1 comment:

HenriMensonge said...

Hi, Mary--

I was pleasantly surprised to see your name pop up in a google search concerning Justifed, which is the show I allow myself to watch; however, that surprise is also mixed with embarrassment for not having read your acquaintance's book that you sent to me *years* ago. I apologize.

In any case, I enjoyed your review. I agree that Goggins' character Boyd Crowder is the most interesting part of Justified. What I enjoy is the ways that he is as much fun as Milton's Satan, sans the bitterness. More interesting to me, though, is the way Crowder works against White Trash representations. Hell, all of Justifed, from my perspective, is a critique of White Trash lit. Boyd, contrasted with Dickie Bennett, reveals the complexity that White Trash characterization tries to strip from poor white Southerners. For example, Dickie is a simple buffoon who also has some of the physical flaws emblematic of WT characters (we she this, somewhat dismayingly, in female WT representations in this show, too). In fact, Raylon is as flat as Dickie, but at the other end of the physical spectrum (and thus, in a superficial view of the show, the hero who is rising above). It is Boyd, though, who behaves as complexly as the place he comes from--a hollow with a deep history (see William Least Heat Moon).

So, thank you for the review, and thank you for focusing on Boyd. From a personal perspective, as someone who grew up as borderline white trash who then moved to Detroit, this show is perfect for my interests.

For what it's worth, I'm teaching a White Trash Fiction course next semester.....any suggestions are welcome.