Hang out in front of a television set for as long as this writer has, and you can honestly report that there’s nothing new under the cathode-ray sun. The pickings may not be as slim as Robert Graves indicated in his poem “To Juan at the Winter Solstice,” in which Graves asserts, “There is one story and one story only,” but it sometimes sure seems that way.
Our need for catharsis as television viewers, however, demands content providers shake it up once in a while, if only to put old detergent into new and improved bottles. Hence we witness the cycle of 1960s classic-era situation comedies repeated in the 1990s, and the 1970s heyday of miniseries, soap operas, and novels for television rinsed off and repurposed for contemporary audiences.
That ring around the collar in Justified? Why, it hearkens back to Rich Man, Poor Man and Roots in the 1970s, to be kind, and to erstwhile daytime soap operas such as The Guiding Light and the thousands of primetime story arcs in between as well, to be brutally honest.
The pleasure of watching programs like Justified (beginning with the second season, when it largely abandoned standalone episodes) is the slow unfolding of a story with the knowledge there’ll be a reasonable resolution at the conclusion of the dozen or so episodes constituting a single season. Audiences are provided the opportunity to live with the shows’ heroes and villains and to watch them behave with a complexity that obviates simple moral categorization.
Justified’s Boyd Crowder is a bad guy, to be sure, but viewers learned early on that he’s also a classic character foil for U.S. Federal Marshal Raylan Givens, and—in Walton Goggins’ outstanding portrayal—as memorably charismatic as any drug-dealing, Bible-quoting, swastika-tattooed, bank-robbing flimflammer ever brought to the small screen. Much the same praise could be extended to the remainder of the program’s stellar supporting cast and guest stars.
Justified is but one example of a successful single-story season, just as Breaking Bad and The Sopranos exemplify short-season shows that successfully relied on cliffhangers and loose threads to bring viewers back for dramatic resolution in subsequent seasons. Other shows—such as Lost and The X-Files—frustrated viewers with red herrings and shaggy-dog narratives that raised more questions than they resolved.
In the case of The X-Files, creator Chris Carter attempted more than a televised novel by adding two cinematic releases to what inevitably became a failed supernatural epic with several outstanding episodes that combined great acting, direction, music, and cinematography. The first film was nothing more than a big-budget cigarette-smokescreen bummer, and the underrated second film avoided the show’s conspiracy mythology completely.
By the time Robert Patrick joined the series as a nonbeliever FBI agent to Gillian Anderson’s “I’m a Catholic scientist, but I’ve seen a lot of things that neither Catholicism nor science can explain” Scully, viewers had already completely lost interest because of the distinct impression that they’d been jerked around for way too many seasons.
By series’ end, Carter had lost dramatic control of his baby, which may be attributed to restless cast members and a misguided habit of doubling down on the Gordian knot of the show’s myriad conspiracies. That is why your writer found himself all in a state of elation when reading of the potential resolution to the X-Files saga: a “short-stack” order of six to ten new episodes is said to be close to being inked.
Anderson, Carter, and leading man David Duchovny are all attached, and Mitch Pileggi is in talks to return as their boss, FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner. Finally, we may learn what happened to FBI Agent Fox “Spooky” Mulder’s sister, Samantha, and what specific role Mulder’s father had in her disappearance.
Or perhaps the show can start from scratch and get it right this time by following the examples set by so many programs of the current Second Golden Age of Television. That’s one story I could get behind.