Let's hear it for those rare shows that make the hard stuff look easy.
As you settle into the first few episodes of the promising fourth season of "Justified" (Tuesday, January 8 at 10 p.m. EST on FX), you'll meet a string of new characters, you'll encounter several fresh stories, and you'll get reacquainted with where things stand for US Marshal and Kentucky native Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and for his associates -- both savory and unsavory -- in Harlan County and Lexington.
As you sink into the richness of the world "Justified" has built up over four seasons, take a minute, if you so desire, to think about how difficult those kinds of things are for most TV shows. What constitutes laborious setup and halting, perfunctory world-building on so many other programs is usually a genuine pleasure on "Justified," which continues to earn its reputation as one of the most consistently well-crafted, witty and intelligent shows on TV.
The phrase "character-driven" gets tossed around a lot when it comes to one-hour dramas, but "Justified" is truly interested in the people Raylan encounters, thus meeting new characters is always something to savor, not merely endure. The truth is, there are a lot of shows in which certain characters exist solely to carry specific plot threads forward and never really rise above that drab, functional niche. On "Justified," however, it's easy to be drawn into the lives of the characters Raylan meets as he investigates an odd item that is found in his father's house, a discovery that drives a good bit of the first two episodes (and presumably beyond).
Like the Elmore Leonard novels from whence the lead character sprang, "Justified" is interested in people and what makes them tick, and it likes funky weirdness for its own sake. I don't know why I was surprised that "Justified" did so well while collecting our annual Best TV Lines at the close of 2012, but that crowdsourced project reminded me of how memorable the show's dialogue frequently is. Raylan travels in a dangerous and emotionally fraught territory (his father's an unrepentant criminal, for one thing), but the "Justified" writers' facility with laconically precise language and the show's love of danger mixed with absurdity means that there's plenty of fodder for dry comedy and concise pathos in every episode.
And the show continues its skill in casting guest stars to deliver that sterling dialogue (as I discuss in the podcast below, "Justified" reminds me of a meaty British crime drama in its ability to cast distinctive actors who fully inhabit their roles). Early on in the season premiere, viewers will encounter the mildly pathetic yet cheerful Constable Bob Sweeney (Patton Oswalt), a Harlan resident who's in law enforcement, sort of (he's one step above a rent-a-cop). Bob could either be a delusional law-enforcement wannabe or a winningly optimistic, hardworking schlub with a badge, and "Justified" isn't interested in telling the audience which persona is the most accurate one. Bob's both comical and competent and a lot of things in between, and because Oswalt plays him with such obvious relish, you instantly care about what will become of the constable and his pathetic car.
Bob would love to have Raylan's effortless charisma, but that's the way of the world even in this hardscrabble environment: Like Bob, everyone on "Justified" aspires to be something else. A prostitute wants to be saved by an earnest young preacher who rolls into town; a veteran wants to forget his past by losing himself in efficient violence; Boyd's lover Ava (Joelle Crowder) is trying to reinvent herself as a tough madame, and so on.
You could almost say that trying on new identities is what "Justified" is really about. Actual tough hombres like Raylan and crime boss Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) are constantly coming across criminals and wannabes who want to measure themselves against the Harlan natives' flinty courage. What gives these encounters their mildly farcical tone is the fact that Raylan and Boyd would much rather avoid all these tense encounters, and yet the lives they lead force them to continually endure them with stoic resignation. Thanks to the show's embarrassment of riches in its guest cast and main cast, these creatively rendered standoffs just never get old.
What gives the show its necessary and subtle undercurrent of poignance is that Boyd and Raylan are the only ones who are not really aspiring to be something else -- they're too well acquainted with their flaws to be convinced that they can truly change. But their ability to think on their feet and their desire to move forward with their lives, despite their ample baggage and frequent setbacks, account for the show's ultimately optimistic tone.
It'd be so easy for "Justified" to fall into a darker, more pessimistic territory -- thanks to its premise, it's already halfway there. As this show, as well as "The Sopranos" and "Breaking Bad" have made clear, being a crime lord can be such a grind that it hardly seems worth the effort and stress. Raylan's thankless job isn't much different; there's always another knucklehead on the lam that he and his fellow Marshals have to catch and there's always another gang that thinks it can outwit the authorities. No matter what Raylan and Boyd do to keep their heads above water and put a bit of money aside for their kin (Raylan's got a baby on the way), there's always another complication that didn't quite see coming, despite their quick minds and quicker reflexes.
But those unexpected developments are part and parcel of "Justified's" substantial charms. All those digressions are enjoyable in their own right; unlike, say, "Game of Thrones," all of "Justified's" story strands feel organically connected to each other, no matter how much they occasionally stray from the main narrative. As we travel those backroads and highways with Raylan and learn more about the lives of Bob, Ellen May the hooker (Abby Miller), Shelby the new sheriff (Jim Beaver), the Crowder clan and everyone else, the world becomes more textured, more layered, more ripe with possibility. And there's a plan: The lovely thing about "Justified" is that it delivers all the shaggy charm of a diverting character piece even as a supple, strongly structured story gives the whole affair an unmistakable energy and direction.
There's a trajectory that will carry everyone all to a new place, even if they all stay in Kentucky.
"Justified" premieres 10 p.m. ET Tuesday on FX.
On this week's Talking TV podcast, Ryan McGee and I discussed "Cougar Town," "Justified," the "Doctor Who" Christmas special, "The Carrie Diaries" and "Downton Abbey." The podcast is here, on iTunes and below.