Last month, I posted some comments about the first two films in the “Riddick” series of movies. A friend mentioned Longmire, a series which shares an actress (Katee Sackhoff) with the new Riddick movie. He noted that he watched the second season of Longmire at the same time he was watching the first season of Justified, adding “I'd really love to see a good essay on the two of them”. That has stuck with me ever since I read it, and since I have now finished Season Two of Longmire, perhaps I can give it a go.
Replying to his comments, I wrote:
I think Justified is one of the best series on right now. Justified and Longmire aren't in the same league as each other, to my mind, but I do find myself thinking about the reasons for that, or rather, why is it that a show like Longmire, which is a nice ratings success for A&E, isn't thought of alongside shows like Justified. Partly, I think, it's old-fashioned in its tendency towards standalone episodes. That's something which works for CBS, and really, Longmire's just a procedural with a nice setting and good acting from Robert Taylor and Katee Sackhoff. I don't usually watch procedurals, so I can't actually say how Longmire compares to the L&O franchise or NCIS or Criminal Minds. Anyway, season-long arcs are the core of so-called classic TV today. (Justified actually walks a nice line between standalone and long-term, with standalones dominating early episodes of a season and the long arc gradually coming into focus.)
The key phrase here, I suspect, is “old-fashioned”. Take out the occasional use of the word “shit”, and tone down the violence a hair, and Longmire could have aired on broadcast television during just about any era. There is nothing wrong with this, and to the extent Longmire is good at what it attempts, it is unfair to judge it for being “old-fashioned”. Having said that, I’m pretty sure that’s one reason I consider Longmire to miss the top level, and I’m guessing that is true for most of the top TV critics, who to my knowledge rarely talk about the show. If Longmire were part of 80s television, if it was up against Scarecrow and Mrs. King and Remington Steele, it would fit right in … a bit darker, with the female lead having less to do, but otherwise, similar in structure. In today’s TV environment, though, Longmire’s dark side is barely noticed. Next to characters like Walter White, Don Draper, Nicholas Brody, Nucky Thompson, Vic Mackey, and Dexter Morgan, the Gary Cooper-ish Walt Longmire is just a regular guy with a bit of backstory. And again, there is nothing wrong with this, but the stakes have been raised.
It probably goes without saying that an old-fashioned hero like Walt Longmire would be appealing to viewers who are sick of all those anti-heroes. And the series does good things with this difference. Robert Taylor, the unknown-to-me Australian actor who plays the title role, is masterful as a 21st-century version of Gary Cooper. Walt Longmire has some skeletons in his closet; he is not a perfect man. But he is a good man who has occasionally done bad things. The standard anti-hero of today thinks they are doing good, but they are lying to themselves (see Mackey, Vic). Walt Longmire isn’t sure he is good, but his actions prove otherwise.
Toss in some solid acting in the secondary roles. Katee Sackhoff is fine, of course, and it’s not Lou Diamond Phillips’ fault that his character, a Cheyenne, never uses contractions when he speaks. Longmire also does a good job of bringing interesting actors into semi-recurring roles: A Martinez, Charles S. Dutton, Gerald McRaney, Lee Tergesen, Peter Weller. (It’s also worth pointing out that everyone I just mentioned, with the exception of Sackhoff, is male … Walt has a daughter, and a woman runs the sheriff’s office, but the series is essentially male. Even Sackhoff, one of the prime ass-kicking female actors of her time, plays a role where the primary sub-plot has her terrified by a male stalker.)
I haven’t addressed the relationship between Walt and the neighboring Native American reservation. It’s a bit like what the show does with Katee Sackhoff … they take advantage of what is being offered, but the show is never more than the story of Walt Longmire. The often fractious interactions between Walt and the Cheyenne seem fairly presented to me. I can’t claim to any expertise on the subject, but I’d say the Cheyenne come off better than the Mexicans of Juárez in The Bridge.
The truth is, the above marks the most thought I have given to this series in its two seasons on the air. It doesn’t require that kind of analysis. That’s another way it is old-fashioned, and another reason, I bet, that it’s relatively popular. Grade for series so far: B, with the added note that I’ve watched all of the episodes and don’t hate the show. That is, I’ve given it one of my lower grades, but in sticking with it, I’m placing it above all of those series I give up on.
What does this have to do with Justified? Nothing, except both series are quasi-Westerns based on the work of popular novelists, with strong, silent types at the center.
Start with those novelists. I haven’t read Craig Johnson’s Longmire novels, which says less about the quality of Johnson’s writing and more about my own taste preferences (having read a zillion detective books in the years I was writing my dissertation, I find I can’t get too excited about them any longer). I’ve read some of Elmore Leonard’s work, although again, not any of his Raylan Givens stories. I do know that Leonard’s reputation is that of a fine writer who rises above the limitations of the various genres in which he writes. I’m speaking anecdotally, but I think Leonard is a far more highly regarded writer than Johnson … at the least, he is more well-known. This allows Justified to have a bit of snob appeal that Longmire lacks. (This didn’t help with the late, lamented series Karen Sisco.)
While Justified has its own “old-fashioned” roots, it mostly avoids them. Raylan Givens is a better person than, say, Vic Mackey … at least Raylan tries to rein himself in. But it becomes clear over time that the difference between Raylan Givens and his long-time nemesis Boyd Crowder is slim.
There are two areas where I think Justified rises above not only Longmire, but most TV series. First is the dialogue. Not since the days of Deadwood (another series that featured Timothy Olyphant) has there been a show that combined complex, witty dialogue with actors well-suited to pull it off. I am not the only person to claim that I’d watch an hour of nothing but Raylan/Olyphant and Boyd/Walton Goggins sitting around talking in their semi-menacing, known-each-other-a-long-time, saying-something-different-than-the-words-suggest way. It isn’t fair to say that the dialogue on Longmire, which tends to be functional, doesn’t measure up to Justified, because I’m not sure if any show reaches that level.
The relationship between Raylan and Boyd points to the second area that Justified does so well. The community of Harlan County is completely believable. There are characters that aren’t exactly realistic, if that’s what you’re looking for. But the way the various characters interact is the essence of the show. It’s not just Raylan and Boyd, it’s the entire Givens and Crowder families. It’s the mines, and the drugs, and the gangs, that too, but the deep-seated familial ties make Justified a truly great show. Raylan’s relationship with his scumbag father, and his fear that inside he is just like Dad, gives depth to everything Raylan does.
The believable community works as a base from which each season expands the parameters. The second season, still the best, brings in the Bennett family, who have long-standing problems with the Givens. Margo Martindale’s performance as Mags, the matriarch, was one of the great acting jobs in TV history, and her Emmy was well-deserved. The third season introduces Ellstin Limehouse, head of the black community of Noble’s Holler, and you believe from the start that this character has always been there, that he has a history with Harlan County.
It’s a funny thing … the show is filmed largely in California, so the veracity of the community comes from the writing and the acting (and the production team). Longmire also feels “real”, and while they don’t film in Wyoming, New Mexico and Nevada work just fine.
Is Justified “new-fashioned”? I’d argue that a 1980s Raylan Givens would be more clearly a good guy, perhaps like Andy Sipowicz on NYPD Blue, who was a racist alcoholic but who was redeemed. In 2013, it is unlikely that Raylan will ever be redeemed … his problems aren’t with alcohol, but with a terrible father and some kind of essential love of violence. In the 1980s, Raylan Givens would have been a bad guy.
Justified could fall apart … most series eventually lose whatever made them great. But I imagine Longmire will remain as it is until the end of its run. And I’d be surprised if I ever gave it a grade higher than B+.