Timothy Olyphant in 'Justified'

Fox’s FX channel has a history of pushing the boundaries of “free cable” programming, with shows such as Nip/Tuck, The Shield, Rescue Me, Dirt, Damages, Sons of Anarchy, The League, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. But although “edgy” material dominates FX’s original programming, the values and ideas of the shows are often rather laudable. It’s a technique many TV producers have adopted from 1970s genre films and perfected in recent years: adding titillating content to very traditional genre material that often reinforces values usually thought of as conservative.

The latest example of this approach by FX is the new series Justified. Produced by Graham Yost (Speed, Boomtown, The Pacific) and based on a novel by Western and crime novel master Elmore Leonard (“Three-Ten to Yuma,” Mr. Majestyk, Get Shorty, Out of Sight), Justified stars Timothy Olyphant (Deadwood) as a U.S. Marshall, Raylan Givens, exiled to his hometown area in Eastern Kentucky after his questionable killing of a mobster in Miami.

Givens is a straightforward hero without any phony psychological complexity, which in contemporary crime dramas generally serves to undermine the heroic nature of such characters and suggest that heroism is passé, no longer possible in a world in which moral relativism is not an assumption but somehow has become a fact. This is an important point—note the show’s title. Despite any ironies that may be intended, the implication is clear: there is good, and there is evil, and we are justified in making the distinction and acting on it. That’s what Raylan Givens does.

“Justified” is also a reference to the Christian idea of salvation. Religion provides a strong subtext in the show, and in fact it’s done with more subtlety and sympathy than its source material.

The Leonard story on which the show was based, “Fire in the Hole,” provided the plot for the show’s pilot episode, and the adaptation followed the original novella precisely (except for the ending). There is one big difference, however: the central interest of “Fire in the Hole” is the depiction of white racist militia elements, especially self-proclaimed Christians, as a major force in the story’s rural Kentucky, setting. “Fire in the Hole” makes strong and continual connections among Christianity, far-right-wing beliefs, racism, and violence, and it emphasizes that the rural Appalachian environment generates violence, ignorance, criminality, contempt for authority, political corruption, and intense dislike for outsiders.

The pilot episode of Justified included those elements but downplayed their importance, concentrating more on the character of Givens and his relationship with childhood friend and subsequent career criminal Boyd Crowder. The latter, played with great skill by Walton Goggins (The Shield), is the leader of a self-styled Christian militia group that is clearly just an exceedingly vicious criminal gang. In the first two episodes, Yost makes sure to establish that the group’s pretensions to patriotism and religious faith are pure sham, and he makes the point much more clearly than Leonard did.

In subsequent episodes this distinction is retained and reinforced, as the villains are not predominantly white, self-professed Christian, redneck evildoers and instead are often outsiders. Thus the show’s depictions of violence and criminality suggest a wider array of motives for human evil and their manifestations than is seen in Leonard’s story.

It’s also worth noting that although there is a good deal of violence in Justified, there is also much intelligent and interesting dialogue. Each episode has at least one scene in which characters converse about fairly deep topics, and each also includes at least one scene of unusually well-written suspense. As is the convention for contemporary TV drama series, the show keeps multiple story lines going, and the writers do an excellent job of spending just enough time on them to keep them going without distracting from the unique central plot elements of each episode.

Exemplifying the show’s variety of crimes and criminals, in episode three, “The Fixer,” the title character, a bookmaker and confidential informant for the Marshalls’ Bureau, is a sneaky manipulator from Brooklyn who can’t stand Kentucky, and a vicious debt-collector and killer he employs is from Detroit. The main homegrown villain is a spoiled rich man who has squandered his parents’ money and is looking to make a big score.

In this as in subsequent episodes, the crooks frequently betray one another. That’s a staple from Leonard’s novels.

Episode four, “Long in the Tooth,” exemplifies this. It takes place in Los Angeles, with a strong contrast between a low-income Latina mother, who is shown expressing gratitude to her dentist for allowing her extra time to make her payments, and an apparently well-off and obviously spoiled twentysomething who wants the dentist to fire his receptionist because she can’t persuade his insurance company to pay for his “semi-elective procedures: my caps and gold crowns.”

In the main storyline, Givens and his partner are trying to find a former mob accountant who is on the run after blowing his witness-protection cover, before his former employers can catch up to him and kill him. In addition, the same mob wants to kill Givens in revenge for the killing in Miami in the first episode of the series. In a particularly effective scene, Givens surprises the two mob hitmen in their car and nonchalantly outlines their options, most of which involve him killing them—very reminiscent of Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Callahan in his prime.

Eventually, confronted by the hitmen in the desert, Givens tells the leader of the pair, “You take one more step, and I’ll shoot you.” The mobster does, and Givens shoots him, as promised. The other hitman gets himself shot as well. “I warned you—twice,” says Givens to the dying man. Later, during his escape attempt, Rollie, the former mob accountant, ends up killing a would-be murderer and rapist “coyote.” Rollie ultimately sacrifices his life to save those of girlfriend Mindy and Marshall Givens. As that choice suggests, the characters and their motives are more complex than those of most TV crime drama characters.

Episode five, “The Lord of War and Thunder,” likewise shows a variety of villains and motives. An escaped con Givens is assigned to catch is a local, though not a member of the militia group, and Givens’s elderly father—a career criminal and ne’er-do-well—is presented as both charmingly raffish and frighteningly violent. Another evildoer, small-time drug dealer Perkins, is a transplant from some unnamed urban area who hates Harlan County and the people who live there.

Episode six, “The Collection,” takes place in Cincinnati, where Givens and his boss have been sent to seize the assets of a wealthy art collector who has several paintings allegedly painted by Adolph Hitler but are fakes. The paintings are actually part of a scheme, concocted by the man’s wife, that leads to murder. The main action of the story takes place at the man’s large, expensive house and horse farm. In this episode, Givens very smartly talks himself out of a dangerous situation in which a murderer has a hidden gun aimed at him. Givens also finds out that Crowder has undergone a supposed religious conversion in prison, which Givens is certain is insincere despite the prisoner’s persistent attempts to persuade him.

In “Blind Spot,” once again the worst villains are not lower-class locals. One is a sheriff’s deputy, and the other is a hitman from out of town who expresses open contempt for the locals. The miscreant in “Blowback” is likewise not a local but instead a prisoner in transport who has taken two guards hostage in the Marshalls’ Lexington office. The depiction of this character is quite sophisticated, allowing the viewer to understand his attitudes without condoning his behavior. The episode also visits an ongoing storyline in which the husband of Givens’s ex-wife is in danger from local gangsters of a non-militia, non-redneck variety. This is the main storyline of  the subsequent episode, “Hatless.”

Through all of these stories, Givens dispenses justice with a strong hand and fast gun, emanating a powerful Dirty Harry vibe thanks in good part to Olyphant’s soft, Eastwood-like voice and the casual, confident posture of his lanky frame. Olyphant also adds something of his own to the Eastwood style: a ready and disarming smile, rather reminiscent of John Wayne, in fact.

Also as in the Eastwood tradition, Givens finds himself continually in hot water from his superiors. Unlike the Dirty Harry films, however, in which the tough cop hardly has any life outside his work, Given’s problems in Justified result largely from problems in his personal life, such as a romance with a woman whom he’s supposed to be guarding from killers. That’s typical of contemporary crime dramas, but Justified is distinguished by its unsentimental and realistic depiction of the consequences of those choices.

The show has done well in the ratings, and FX renewed it for a second season last week. Given its intelligent writing, sound values, and smart mixture of appealing elements from previous popular crime drama series, that success is indeed well justified.