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Justified honored Elmore Leonard by making great—not revolutionary—TV

The departing FX series told a good story and told it well, just like Leonard.

“He looked like a farmer: that stringy type with hollow cheeks, crow’s-feet, and had the accent to go with it, not Deep South but from somewhere below Ohio. He touched the funneled brim of his Stetson with two fingers and held open his ID case in the other hand, showing his star. He said, ‘Raylan Givens, U.S. Marshals Service.’”

-from Pronto (1993), by Elmore Leonard

When Elmore Leonard died in 2013, a lot of the tributes and obituaries referenced the author’s ten rules for good writing, which includes the golden rule that trumps them all: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Leonard’s tips are mostly variations on that one idea. Never use a verb other than “said” for dialogue. No prologues. No detailed descriptions. In a nutshell: Avoid anything fancy or literary that would get in the way of telling the story.

The best movie adaptations of Leonard’s work—the 1957 westerns 3:10 To Yuma and The Tall T, the 1974 Charles Bronson vehicle Mr. Majestyk, and the 1990s crime pictures Get Shorty, Out Of Sight, and Jackie Brown—have mostly stayed true to what he was all about, even given Steven Soderbergh’s and Quentin Tarantino’s occasional auteur filigree. The same is true of the Leonard-derived FX series Justified, which hasn’t only been a living illustration of his rules, but has played like a weekly rebuke to the pretensions of modern, “serious” television.

Justified has been as well-written, snappily directed, superbly acted, and well supplied with complex characters and deep themes as any contemporary prestige drama. After tonight’s series finale, producer Graham Yost and his creative team (which included Leonard while he was alive) will have spent six seasons and 78 episodes examining old grudges and tangled family ties in the mountains of Kentucky, where the show’s hero U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens was born and raised. Yost and his writers haven’t shied away from confronting matters of class and race, or from asking whether’s Raylan’s really all that different from his loquacious nemesis, drug dealer Boyd Crowder.

But Justified also hasn’t avoided answering that question, with an unequivocal, “Yes.” Boyd’s a devious opportunist who kills when it’s convenient, while Raylan—though he’s a self-centered prick who’s quick on the trigger—aims to do what he knows to be right.

Boyd’s a fun character, especially as played by the wiry Walton Goggins; and he’s even fairly sympathetic. Like a lot of criminals in pulp stories, Crowder dreams of piling up enough money to allow him to buy a big house and live the straight life with his true love, Ava. But relatable aspirations don’t make him any less deserving of punishment. Raylan, meanwhile, has never been an “antihero” of the type that’s dominated TV in the post-Sopranos era. He bends rules, drives his boss and coworkers crazy, and he’s clearly haunted by a childhood spent under the thumb of a cruel outlaw father. But he also closes cases, and as played by Timothy Olyphant he does it with a combination of quiet arrogance and vengefulness—as though he were trying to prove to everyone he grew up with that he’s better than them.

Genre fiction writers often say that the key to a gripping story is to start as late into the action as possible, and to let the reader learn about the characters and the plot while everything’s already in full swing. This happens a lot on television these days, but with a cheat. One of the biggest clichés in TV writing is when an episode begins with something exciting and strange before jumping back in time, with a “12 hours earlier” card or something similar. That’s never been Justified’s way. The first episode introduces Raylan: a pain-in-the-ass who wears out his welcome in Miami and is sent to a Marshals’ office in Lexington, because he knows the territory and has a semi-friendly relationship with the chief, Art Mullen (wonderfully played by Nick Searcy). From there, Justified has proceeded in a straight line, revealing everything that the viewer needs to know about its hero’s past via his interactions with the locals, while he’s doing his job.

Those interactions are Justified’s bread-and-butter, and they’re what’s made the show most recognizably an Elmore Leonard adaptation. For Leonard, “story” had a somewhat different meaning than it might to adherents of Robert McKee or Joseph Campbell. Each Justified season follows one long plot that pits good guys against bad guys (or, more often, bad guys against bad guys), but each individual episode is made up of what could be called anecdotes, or incidents—or even shaggy-dog jokes.

This is “story” in the “the weirdest thing happened to me today” sense (or in the “Norm Macdonald talking to David Letterman about Bob Uecker” sense). From episode to episode, Raylan is focused on finding and apprehending some particular crook—to the extent that he often ignores other crimes, because they’re not part of his mission—and a lot of the dramatic tension in Justified comes not from the gunfights, but from the Marshals being exasperated as they work their way past one colorful nitwit after another. Where other shows have moody musical montages, or whispered, halting conversations in dimly lit rooms, Justified relies on wry scenes of outsized characters puffing their chests out at each other. And when those characters are played by the likes of Olyphant, Goggins, Searcy, Jere Burns, Mary Steenburgen, Margo Martindale, Mykelti Williamson, and Sam Elliot, the entertainment value is high.

This series hasn’t always been a smooth ride. The third season was a little rocky at times, and the fifth season suffered from unappealing villains, excessive violence, and overly complicated plotting that frequently ranged too far from Kentucky, where the show’s heart lies. Still, compared to the dark, intricate storytelling that dominates pulp TV these days—as in the similar FX action-drama Sons Of AnarchyJustified is a model of concision. There are real life-and-death stakes here, but no inflated importance or self-mythologizing accompanying them. Even stylistically, Justified rarely calls attention to itself. The model is the sturdy 1950s westerns of Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann, where framing, blocking, and editing carries more weight than dynamic camera moves.

The question, now that Justified is ending, is whether its approach to the crime series will spawn any imitators, or if it’s destined to be fondly remembered but non-influential. The show has only had a strong Emmy presence once, after the second season, when four of its actors were nominated (and one, Martindale, won). And there hasn’t exactly been a wave of TV dramas rushing to be the next Justified—not even on FX.

With Sons Of Anarchy over and Justified ending, FX’s two remaining powerhouse dramas are The Americans and Fargo, both of which are excellent, and both of which bear some similarities to their network companions. Fargo is more overtly stylized, and follows a season-long anthology format, but like Justified, Fargo’s episodes rely heavily on stringing together scenes where something offbeat happens. As for The Americans, it’s much weightier than Justified, but it’s similarly straightforward, throwing the characters and the audience right into the action and revealing its world and themes in the process.

It’s hard to copy Justified though, because the show is so unassuming. Each season thus far has ended with a different version of Kentucky musician Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” and over the past six years the series has established an aesthetic similar to a low-key guitar-slinging troubadour: making music so simple that it seems like anyone could do it. But not everyone is Darrell Scott, just like not everyone is Elmore Leonard. The main reason why Leonard was able to work so well within his own rules is that he had a vivid imagination and a masterful ear for dialogue, which meant he didn’t need much more than a twisty plot and some strong personalities to fill the page. Justified’s team has also trusted that this is enough. Like a great songwriter, they’ve just picked out a few chords, and then sung something honest.