ENTERTAINMENT
01/20/2015 05:00 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

'Justified' Is In Fine Form, But 'Backstrom' Doesn't Measure Up

FX

"Justified" begins its final season Tuesday and "Backstrom" is a newcomer that debuts Thursday, but outside of that big age difference, the premises of the shows have a lot in common.

Both are about men in law enforcement who aggravate everyone around them a little, or a lot. They have bad habits they can't seem to shake, and both shows are often concerned with whether these men can change. Neither show pretends the scope of that change will be wide: Raylan Givens and Everett Backstrom aren't trying to be good, necessarily. Uninterested in being liked, they just attempt to be less aggravating and less prone to getting in their own way -- when they're willing to exert effort on those fronts, that is.

Excavating the anxieties and concerns of middle-class white men who have (or take) a fair degree of power over other people has been one of the main concerns of TV for a long time, so much so that I can't help but celebrate the other kinds of characters, themes and dynamics that have bubbled up in the last few years. It's not that stories with anti-hero underpinnings can't be done well, but by this point, they need to reach a very high level of execution to register in such a varied and vital TV landscape.

"Justified" obviously has an advantage over "Backstrom" in that it's had five prior seasons in which to build up an incredibly rich world and ensemble. In its final season, "Justified" presses those advantages for all they are worth, while staying as cool, collected and wonderfully sardonic as an Elmore Leonard novel. Leonard died in 2013, but the last season of the FX show is a fitting tribute to the writer, who created the laconic lawman Raylan Givens and who, by all accounts, thought the TV show was pretty good (which is the highest praise anyone working on "Justified" could ask for).

As is the case with so many of Leonard's wise, lived-in tales, "Justified" realizes that darkness isn't necessarily all that interesting on its own. When moments of despair or hopelessness are shot through with wry humor and cool intelligence, even the most unpleasant situations can be made bearable, if not downright diverting. That's another way of saying the first few episodes of the final season of "Justified" are about as pleasurable as TV gets.

At its best, this drama is casual and offhand, right up until the point where intelligently crafted tension snaps the story into taut focus. Like Raylan Givens, the quickest draw in the U.S. Marshal's service, "Justified" doesn't like to show off how much skill goes into its casual mastery of form. Showing off just wouldn't be cool, and "Justified" is nothing if not cool.

There are a number of things I'll miss about "Justified" when it's gone, and its dialogue tops that list. Few shows since "Deadwood" have had as much fun with language, and the FX show has always employed the kind of actors (a number of them "Deadwood" alumni) who could make its shaggily ornate lines truly sing. The show and Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) also have a swagger to them, but "Justified" never strays into bumptiousness, mainly because one of its favorite observations is that being smart doesn't count for much in this world. Raylan, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) and Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter) are all intelligent, driven and savvy, and yet they keep getting yanked down by a combination of rash choices and crappy circumstances. The characters keep trying to outrun their roots -- and their ornery natures -- but all they usually have to show for their efforts are bruises, broken relationships and bourbon hangovers.

I never finished the fifth season of "Justified," in part because Michael Rappaport's role as a backwoods gangster was a rare instance of the show's casting going awry. This season, things are back to normal on that front, which is to say that the guest casting is note-perfect. Sam Elliott and Garret Dillahunt are joys to watch in their respective roles as a gangland shotcaller and a cynical gun-for-hire; Elliott, in particular, has charisma to burn and knows exactly how to use it. Mary Steenburgen is excellent as a wily player in the criminal underworld, and Jere Burns continues to provide peerless comic relief as Wynn Duffy (one can only hope that FX at least thinks about a "Better Call Wynn" spinoff).

"Justified" can be counted on to supply a large number of great performances every year, and it also usually introduces a number of plot lines that pile up into a confusing tangle about two-thirds of the way through a given season. The latter tendency has never troubled me much, partly because the show usually resolves those knots in pleasing and surprising ways, and partly because there are so many rewards that come from spending time in this wonderfully detailed and believable world. It's fitting that this show and "Parks and Recreation" will exit at around the same time: They're both about the push and pull of community, and how loving a place doesn't blind you to its biggest problems.

There's a lot of talk in the final season of "Justified" about lost causes and fading hopes, partly because, in the world of the show (and often in real life), there just isn't much work for the working class. Is hardscrabble Harlan, Kentucky fated to fade away? Will Boyd, Raylan and Ava be able to outrun forces that were set in motion in the recent or distant past? Though there are many players in the game at this point, "Justified" is, as it was in its pilot, ultimately about Boyd and Raylan, who continue to circle each other and never tire of trying to outwit one another. I get the sense that only one of them will leave Harlan alive, but I'm not 100 percent sure which one it will be.

Ultimately, the greatest compliment I can pay "Justified" is to say that, despite the fact that it arrived at the height of the anti-hero boom, it never felt like a copycat. The drama created a vibrant, funny, tragic world of its own, and it found a few new things to say about the dilemmas of the working-class white guy in the post-industrial age.

It's hard to find much in "Backstrom" that feels fresh or original: It's as if a collection of cop cliches, anti-hero ideas and grouchy-genius concepts were put in a blender and garnished with some attempts at humor, many of which don't quite land. As is the case with "Gotham" -- another Fox cop show with good cast and a somewhat different set of problems -- "Backstrom" ends up being an odd tonal mixture that has trouble clearly communicating what it is and demonstrating what it wants to be as it moves forward.

Every show arrives in a particular context, and there are two elements of history that work against what "Backstrom" is trying to accomplish. The Fox drama arrives two decades after Detective Andy Sipowicz and "NYPD Blue" supercharged the ongoing shake-up of the cop-show format (a process that began with "Hill Street Blues"). Though the medium is evolving in exciting ways, the last 15 or so years of TV have brought us a lengthy parade of rule-breaking men, on cable and broadcast TV, who are often trailed by women who are there to tell the guys how they're transgressing and why that's not such a good idea. But these guys -- whether they're Dr. Gregory House or Walter White or detectives like Everett Backstrom -- are just so good at what they do that they get to flout every convention, even as they struggle with their secret desire to be better men, etc.

To its credit, "Backstrom" is aware of that history and tries to give other characters more to do than simply feeding lines to the show's lead. That said, the program doesn't quite bridge the gap between comedy and drama, which appears to be one of its main goals. Funny moments seem jarring after painful personal histories are revealed, and the jocular humor at crime scenes is not so winning that it masks the thinness of the mysteries that are solved. And like so many broadcast network dramas of late, the drama hits the viewer over the head with obvious exposition ("What you do is, you see the worst in yourself and apply that to everyone else!"), which might be tolerable if the other elements of the show were working more consistently. Rainn Wilson commits admirably to the lead role and "Backstrom" works mightily to get the viewer to care about this unkempt misanthropist, but in many areas, the strain of covering too many bases too much of the time is very apparent.

Here's the other set of circumstances that must be mentioned in relation to this show: The past year, the news has been rightly dominated by events in Ferguson, Missouri, and various protests relating to allegations of police brutality. "Backstrom" is asking us to tolerate a cop who makes racially charged comments and does whatever he wants because he's decided the rules don't apply to him (he's sexist too, but that's almost an afterthought). Even if the show was great, in this environment, it'd still be a challenge to do what "Backstrom" repeatedly asks viewers to do: Tolerate or find amusing the antics of a selfish, grating, intolerant police officer who appears to do the job for his own amusement, not really for the benefit of the public. "The Shield" was so excellent, and it interrogated its main characters' motivations so thoroughly, that it was worth watching Vic Mackey flagrantly and selfishly break rules for seven seasons. Obviously "Backstrom" wants to be lighter than "The Shield," but Everett is no Vic Mackey or Gregory House. It's also worth noting that the show was developed and partly shot before Ferguson, but for me, it was impossible to watch the Fox series without thinking about current events and assumptions about the kinds of rule-breaking audiences are supposed to find entertaining.

"Backstrom" does have a reasonably good ensemble, but it was odd to see Dennis Haysbert ("24," "The Unit") in a supporting role. Haysbert is typically excellent as an upright yet dogged detective who is a preacher on the weekends, and in his scenes, I kept thinking, "That sounds like the premise for a TV show I haven't seen before."

Maybe one day some network will make it.

The final season of "Justified" arrives Tuesday at 10:00 p.m. ET on FX; "Backstrom" debuts Thursday at 9:00 p.m. ET on Fox.

Ryan McGee and I discussed "Justified," "Backstrom" and "Grantchester" in the latest Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.

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