It's always good to see a cop show which resists the standard shows formulas. A show that's not built around a gimmick or takes place somewhere where a cop show hasn't been set yet. One of the real pleasures of Justified is that it's not interested in be ing another procedural drama, and its writers seem keen to defy your expectations whenever possible.
On paper it could so easily be another "fish out of water" concept. Raylon Givens is an old school lawman whose habit of committing "justified" homicides gets him into trouble in LA. So they ship him off to the real frontier - the country sticks of Kentucky, where he rapidly gets into hot water with the local redneck mafia.
Fortunately, Justified is adapted from a story by acclaimed crime author Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty, LA Confidential). Givens isn't arriving in Kentucky, he's coming home. And his family are already part of the redneck mafia - and he's been in trouble with them for years.
His old school friend Boyd is now a white supremacist who blows up black churches with his army bazooka (he's less racist, more in to intimidating competition). His ex high school squeeze Ava has just shot her husband dead - he was Boyd's brother. And Givens' father used to work for Boyd's father, the local crime kingpin, and he owes him lots of money.
Justified is not so much about crime investigation and more focused on the nature justice, which in these poor rural counties is something of a rarity. Crime isn't just a way of life, it's a steady form of employment. To grow pot is to be part of a family business. The wives of dealers and thugs look at their husbands as working men, not as dealers and thugs. They're poor - you never see a school or a thriving local business (not a legal one anyway), no one gets out of this world, even Raylon got sent back.
The fact that most of the redneck thugs aren’t too bright adds an extra touch of bitter amusement, although it doesn't make them any less dangerous. What they lack in book smarts, they make up with violence and animal cunning. Boyd may have barely finished high school, but that doesn’t make him any less dangerous or ruthless. Or at least until Raylon shoots him - then he supposedly reforms, but you never really know what game he's playing.
Timothy Olyphant plays Marshall Givens, having already showed that he can play an angry lawman in Deadwood. But unlike the barely suppressed rage of Sheriff Bullock, Givens’ anger is much more repressed. His demeanour is always calm, even when he’s a split second away from putting a bullet in your chest. He’s handsome and he knows it, using his looks to charm his way around enemies and friends alike, something that rubs at least one of his colleagues up the wrong way.
And that's another enjoyable aspect to Justified - there's no taking turns between characters for the weekly storyline. Supporting character stories might rub up against Givens' arc, but in the way that other people’s problems might brush up against your own life. You may get involved, pulled in even, but you've got your own problems to worry about.
Justified is a pleasing case of serial storytelling, rather than a "this week's case" type of procedural, made more for casual viewers than weekly viewers. There are weekly plots, but they're usually played as they are, as an inconvenience to the main characters, something that distracts them from the things they'd much rather be doing. Rather than the other way round.
And the storylines are usually very good. Stories are written deliberately to defy your expectations, when you think you know what's going on, something almost always takes you by surprise. And elements of stories that seem incidental or irrelevant come back to mean something later; things connect up in ways you don't expect. One week a character may be incidental to the plot, then suddenly they're corrupt and have being up to something completely different all along. It's these little twists and turns and details that make this world real, but are largely missing from "case of the week" serials.
That's not to say that the show is perfect. A recurring plot during the first season which sees Raylon pursued by assassins sent by an LA drug lord never convinces and perhaps in recognition of its faults is later swept rapidly under the carpet. There's at least one lame character - Raylon's ex-wife's husband - who's the typical slimy second husband type, and it's even harder in this case to believe he wrestled the wife of Timothy Olyphant away.
Not that Raylon is perfect; he's not one of those TV detectives who carries his pain on the rasp of his voice. But he's determined to impose justice on a world, and a past of injustice. And he's not all that bothered about whether the law is on his side or not.
Like the other town's folk, he works on instinct. Sometimes we like seeing him put the villains down, other times his judgement is clearly off. He spares little time jumping into bed with Ava, despite her being a witness (though not difficult to see why). His rule breaking forever digs him into deeper holes, to the point where even his friends desert him. He's devoted to justice but has little respect for the law.
He also gets his ass handed to him a couple of time. It’s not many shows that let their main character get a sound beating; they’re only allowed to be weak in times of crisis, not just when they make a daily misjudgement.
Justified has completed its second series and is geared up for a third. How long it can keep up its talent for surprises while trying to find new redneck mafiosa for our hero to deal with is hard to say. At the moment, however, you'll struggle to find more entertaining morality play on TV.
I've never been to the theatre often enough to have a round-up, but as I've been to two plays in one week, now seems like a good enough time to have one.
Ghost Stories at the Duke of York Theatre
There is ultimately something very cosy and old fashioned about Ghost Stories. The marketing may gleefully play on extremities – a video nasty style orgy of horror that is not advised for “those of a nervous disposition”; a performance that has “even the most hardened of viewers gasping for breath and reaching for their coats to hide behind”.
But behind the William Castle-esque chicanery, its really a more familiar scenario, one that’s more inspired by the 60s and 70s horror anthology – horror with humour and tongue in cheek.
It certainly sets itself up as being relentless, heart-stopping experience. The walls of the Duke of York Theatre are distorted to seem like the passages of a dark excavated cavern, draped with yellow and black caution tape. As the lights go down we are informed that we will not be allowed re-entry during the performance.
The set-up is a mock lecture, in which a professor explains the evolution of the ghost story, and how easily we can be made to believe in fantastical phenomena. Only 3 stories he has ever heard have defied explanation – these are the 3 we will hear tonight.
The first story builds up the suspense almost unbearably; a night watchman goes through his mundane duties against darkness and silence. He ambles around doing nothing for such a long time – the audience waiting on-edge for the shock occurrence that must come.
But when it does, it's very much a-la-Hitchcock; it provokes as much laughter as it does terror – the man’s torch gliding over a large doll/mannequin totally exaggerated in its grotesqueness as to be a bit silly. Not that when it gets up and starts walking that it’s not a bit unsettling.
This sets up the tone of the rest of the show, a blend of shocks and scares mixed with giggles and laughter – it’s hard to be too frightened when a gigantic plastic demon desceneds from the ceiling – not it doesn't make you jump.
Ghost Stories is really charmingly familiar as it unfolds, right up to the surprise ending in which our host not unexpectedly relives his own personal horror. One wonders if the extreme angle of the marketing has actually done the play a disservice - Ghost Stories is really a lot of fun, a refreshingly nostalgic stab at horror, rather than a visceral pushing of heart-attack inducing boundaries.
The Government Inspector at the Voung Vic Theatre
Nikolai Gogol’s 19th century satire is no less appropriate today as it was when it was written. A corrupt major and his cronies are horrified that a government inspector is coming to the town, incognito. In the flurry of activity to hide their own abuses of power they discover a wealthy stranger is staying in the local inn and is running up a tab which he insists will be paid by his superiors.
The wealthy stranger is in fact a spoilt young fop who has lost all his money at cards and is having to blag to even get dishwater soup and stale beef. He soon exploits the craven grovelling of the major, and after much consumption paints himself to be one of the most powerful men in Russia. The major is panicked that he is done for, and he and his officials give the man hundreds in “loans” while he seduces the major's wife and daughter.
The Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barrett is good as the nervous spineless major, but even better is Doon Mackican as his classless nouveau riche wife who gets to deliver such golden lines as “I j’adored it”. Perhaps stealing the show is Kyle Foller as the camp faux inspector who manages to be the most over the top in a thoroughly OTT show. Looking a bit like Doctor Who’s Matt Smith, if were to play Batman’s The Joker, he deftly delivers tremendously epic monologues whilst dancing across the stage and climbing the furniture.
In a show that has its fair share of terrific dialogue - “oh my god, the church – we forgot to build a church!” - one of the elements that stands out is the constant choreography; the constant synchronised movements of the large ensemble cast. There’s almost too much to look at, from servants covertly filling up glasses to the incompetent seductress strutting ridiculously for attention.
Some of the more surreal moments don’t always come off, and some of the scenes could do with a little trimming. But overall The Government Inspector is a thoroughly delightful frantic bit of comedy that despite its age and eccentric presentation never feels too far from reality.
Burke & Hare (2010) Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Tom Wilkinson, Jessica Hynes, Tim Curry, Ronnie Corbett. Dir: John Landis.
Two Scots come up with a novel way to fulfil the demand for bodies for surgical dissection. Considering the talent involved, it should be a lot better than it is. Seems reluctant to make comedy out of the deliciously dark subject and settles for familiar gags. Pleasant, but not exceptional.
The Stuff (1985) Michael Moriarty, Garrett Morris, Andrea Marcovicci, Paul Sorvino. Dir: Larry Cohen.
A corporate saboteur investigates a new food craze, which turns out to be more than just addictive. Low budget comedy horror which isn’t that horrific or that funny. The concept is fun, and there’s some enjoyable digs at consumerism. It’s just not particularly memorable for being particularly good or particularly bad.
A soldier repeatedly relives the last 8 minutes of a man on a bombed train until he can find the bomber. It’s always good to see intelligent sci-fi. Not perfect – the characters aren’t interesting, and some tension is forced – but at 90 mins it’s taut and keeps you invested.
Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) Peter Cushing, Chistopher Lee, Donald Sutherland, Neil McCallum, Alan Freeman, Roy Castle, Michael Gough, Ann Bell. Dir: Freddie Francis.
A Doctor predicts grisly futures for five commuters after giving them a tarot reading. You couldn’t call it scary, but this horror anthology does have great moments of eccentricity and wit, as well as an excellent cast. Lee and Gough’s segment as critic and artist rivals is a highlight.
Z (1969) Jean-Louis Trintignant, Yves Montand, Irene Papas, Jacques Perrin. Dir: Costa Gravas.
An attack on a communist senator leads a prosecutor to discover a government conspiracy. Greek thriller that makes no pretence at being fictional. Has fun sending up the ridiculous double-standards of the suppressors, but this only makes their ruthless actions more devastating. Drags in places, but otherwise very compelling viewing.
Nine (2009) Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cottilard, Penelope Cruz, Judy Dench, Kate Hudson, Nicole Kidman, Sophia Loren. Dir: Rob Marshall.
A director has an identity crisis as he starts work on his ninth film, which has no script. Musical remake of 8½, where everything is spelt out in a big showtune. It’s song, scene, song, scene but seems disconnected and largely frivolous. Considering the talent involved, it’s a real disappointment.
Hannibal Rising (2007) Gaspard Ulliel, Gong Li, Dominic West, Rhys Ifans. Dir: Peter Webber.
How Hannibal Lector went insane and became a cannibalistic killer. Totally unconvincing, not least because Hannibal is mute for the first quarter, and then is suddenly the cultured psycho we know. Script is inept and dialogue becomes steadily more painful. And did you know Hannibal was part samurai? Utter rubbish.
is a writer for better and for worse. I got in above my station writing for M&S, but was credit crunched down to writing about sex toys, Viagra and herpes meds. I’m now taking a step back towards legitimacy by writing for JML Direct. I’m awkward and don’t like much.