It's hard to write a review of "Justified," which returns for its third season Tuesday night, because it's hard to tease out which of the show's many fine qualities is most enjoyable.
That the performances of the core cast and guest actors are always top-notch almost goes without saying at this point, though there should be at least a brief mention of how casually great everyone on screen is as the third season unfolds. Between the confidence of the cast and the distinctiveness of the dialogue, which is often memorable but never forced, an hour of "Justified" (Tuesdays, 10 p.m. EST on FX) is simply a great place to hang out. These people value words and are constantly telling each other stories and the show itself serves as a reminder of the many pleasures of adroitly used language. If the show consisted of U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and various co-workers or criminals just sitting in a bar shooting the breeze, I'd want to be a fly on that wall.
But if you keep digging, there's more to this drama. "Justified" introduces new characters and complications this season with its typical laconic grace, as if doing that kind of thing is easy. It's not. Most shows stumble when they have to bring new characters into an established world: Either the show is in such a rush to get the new faces embedded that the people feel generic or underdeveloped, or there's such an effort to make the new characters distinctive that they distract from the show's foundations and fabric.
This season, though, "Justified" smoothly introduces a clutch of new characters in its first four episodes: There's a Detroit fixer played by Neal McDonough (or, as I like to think of him, the world's scariest Hummel figurine); Mykelti Williamson as the quietly charismatic leader of an African-American community in Harlan County; and Carla Gugino as a U.S. Marshal named Karen (though the show doesn't identify her as Karen Sisco, the name of another Elmore Leonard character, whom Gugino played in an ill-fated TV show a few years ago, let's think of her as Sisco, just for fun).
The introduction of these new players into stories involving returning characters like Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies) and Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) makes for a certain kind of buzzing busy-ness at times, but "Justified" doesn't come close to losing control of its narrative. I'd compare the early episodes to a top-flight restaurant during the height of the dinner rush: The staff is moving fast, but they know what they're doing. No plates are dropped.
The pleasures of these early hours of Season 3 are many: Gugino, Williamson and McDonough add even more nuances to the wonderfully textured world of "Justified"; Nick Searcy (who plays Art, Raylan's boss) makes the most of an episode that spotlights him; and Gugino and Olyphant work their characters' sizzling chemistry like conductors leading a first-class orchestra. Gugino is only around for one episode of the four FX sent for review, but the energy of other ongoing stories gains pleasing momentum over time. The death of a major character last season left a power vacuum in Raylan's home, Harlan County, and Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) very much wants to fill that void. Also on Raylan's radar is the Dixie Mafia, which is represented by Duffy and has its own share of problems to deal with.
Underlying all those pleasures is a bedrock principle that makes "Justified" the most hopeful of all the top-tier dramas. It's a philosophy that Omar Little once succinctly summed up on "The Wire": "A man got to have a code."
All the characters on "Justified" have codes, whether they're good guys or bad guys or (more likely) somewhere in the middle. It's not as if the characters follow those codes rigidly; much of the most interesting drama comes from seeing the characters' hopes and beliefs get battered by day-to-day reality.
But whoever they are -- whether they can be found at the end of a crooked Harlan County road or in an antiseptic office in Lexington -- most people on "Justified" are willing to put themselves and their lives on the line in order to get what they want. It's not that these people don't try to avoid death and destruction, but there's a strange kind of purity in their calm embrace of big risks and the possibility of disaster. Like the characters on "Breaking Bad," these men and women hope bad things won't happen, but they generally plan for the worst-case scenario. As is the case with Walter White, Jesse Pinkman and Gus Fring, you have to appreciate their intelligence, if not always their overall goals.
"Justified" respects the darkness and anger that resides in its characters -- you do wonder how often Raylan would shoot people he found offensive, even if he didn't have a Marshal's badge -- but the show has a weird belief in humanity as well, as befits a project that originated in the eternally bemused mind of Elmore Leonard. With great skill and subtlety, "Justified" makes the case that even people who make bad choices are worth spending time with -- if they have a code, if they have some kind of loyalty to the place they're from, if they have decent manners, damn it.
I'm inclined to agree.
Ryan McGee and I talk about the return of "Justified," as well as "Alcatraz," "Archer," "Unsupervised," "Lost Girl," "Being Human," "Misfits" and "The Fades" on this week's Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast. You can find the Talking TV podcast here and on iTunes here. The RSS feed for the podcast is here.
Also, check out the Swag for Charity auction on eBay, where you can bid on an autographed copy of Elmore Leonard's new Raylan Givens novel, "Raylan." There are more than a dozen other pieces of TV memorabilia in the sale, so if you're a fan of "Bones," "Firefly," "Chuck," "House," "Buffy" or a half-dozen other shows, check it out (and keep coming back -- new items are being added to the auction every day) . One hundred percent of the proceeds benefit the Haitian medical charity Partners in Health.