Hard-boiled hicks: ‘Justified’ and ‘Breaking Bad’

Timothy Olyphant plays an old-fashioned marshall in a new-fangled world on “Justified.” Photo: FX


NEW YORK, March 31, 2010 — It grows tiresome to watch all the cops, robbers, lawyers and doctors conducting their fictionalized business in the TV shows based in the big cities — L.A., New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, even Philadelphia (“Cold Case”).

So it comes as a relief when TV’s fictional crime wave spreads outward from the nation’s densest population centers to other areas that have long been under-represented in the cops-and-crime canon.

Two examples: “Justified,” which just started its first season on FX, and “Breaking Bad,” AMC’s homely series, now in its third season, about TV’s most unlikely hero, a low-paid schoolteacher with cancer who takes up a new trade as a methamphetamine manufacturer.

The two shows are exploring seamy underworlds rarely visited by TV show-runners and their production crews.  “Justified” (Tuesday nights at 10 eastern time on FX) brings the ethos of old movie westerns to the backwoods of rural Kentucky, where the bad guys are white supremacists involved in the drug trade.  And “Breaking Bad” (Sunday nights at 10 and 11 eastern on AMC) takes place in New Mexico, around Albuquerque, in suburban housing tracts where the primary color is brown — from the houses to the packed dry earth.

Bryan Cranston in “Breaking Bad.”

In fact, this season, the environs of “Breaking Bad” seem even browner than usual as if a decision was made to affix brown filters to every camera.  If the visuals seem darker, it might be because the show is exploring some dark dramatic territory — setting up the season’s storyline against the backdrop of a horrific airline accident that spread a grotesque debris field of airplane pieces and human flesh over the community where this show’s cancer-ridden anti-hero, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), lives and teaches high school chemistry.

As the season began, Walt’s meth business is on hold and he is estranged from his wife.  In addition, he is in the crosshairs of a pair of tough twin hitmen from Mexico who are apparently on a mission of revenge having to do with the killing last season of their cousin, the drug dealer Tuco.

Who needs big cities?  As they crossed the border into the U.S., the twins murdered an entire truckload of migrants and burned their bodies on a stretch of road in the middle of nowhere — demonstrating that the emptiest geography in the whole world, even baking in the glare of the daytime sun, can be a lot more menacing than a dark alley between city buildings at night.

Meanwhile, the rural Kentucky of “Justified” resembles the semi-lawless towns of movie westerns — the ones that always represented the borderline between unchecked savagery and civilization and were patrolled by a lone soul sworn to establish order.

While the U.S. marshall of “Justified” is not exactly on the job by himself (he’s a member of a well-staffed regional office of U.S. marshalls), he goes about his business as if he’s Gary Cooper in “High Noon.”   In the show, U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens gets reassigned, following a fatal shooting in Miami, to the rural region of Kentucky where he grew up.  Timothy Olyphant plays this guy in pretty much the same way he played a marshall on HBO’s “Deadwood” — as a man of few words, who engages his quarries with a piercing stare, and who has a tendency toward maneuvering bad guys into confrontations that usually end with him shooting them.

This kind of show lives or dies on the quality of those confrontations.  And so far, some of the confrontation scenes seem better choreographed than others, which is to say that these key scenes are not always providing maximum satisfaction.  Still, for reasons having to do with this show’s unusual locale and the hard-to-peg magnetism of its star, I have somehow become hooked enough to watch every episode that FX has provided so far.

Contact Adam Buckman: AdamBuckman14@gmail.com


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