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Justified star Timothy Olyphant
Justified star Timothy Olyphant

You have to watch Justified, a near-perfect drama that keeps getting better Add to ...

The FX drama Justified begins its fourth season tonight (in Canada on SuperChannel, 9 p.m.), and during its first three seasons it has grown in stature, reputation and sophistication.

At first it appeared to be an interesting twist on the fish-out-of-water cop show. Deputy U.S. marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) went too far while toiling to take down drug dealers in Miami. He shot a man he really, really disliked, but maybe he shouldn’t have drawn his gun and fired. So, in some trouble, he gets reassigned, sent back to his hometown of Lexington, Ky.

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The twist was that he was back in familiar water, a place he loathed and thought he had escaped. With Harlan County, the local area notorious for poverty and crime, as his base of operation, he sighed and seemed resigned to dealing with backwoods lawlessness and weirdness. Derived from an Elmore Leonard short story (and produced by Canadian Graham Yost), the series started droll and Raylan dispensed dry wit as he faced old foes and found old friends who had drifted into crime both petty and profound.

Then Justified took root in its setting and blossomed. Raylan’s long feud with old pal Boyd Crowder (wonderfully played by Walton Goggins, who was Shane on The Shield) twisted this way and that. Boyd was first the leader of a group of local racists and hell-raisers, then a born-again religious zealot, but always a dangerous criminal. Raylan’s laid-back, old-school lawman style seemed organic in the setting as one local nut bar after another tried to outwit him – and usually failed. The fact that Raylan’s dad Arlo (Raymond J. Barry) was an incorrigible criminal added to the sterling quality of the slow-burning, sometimes Gothic drama.

Olyphant, who plays Raylan with such elan, is as laid-back in person as his character. During the recent TV Critics Tour in Los Angeles, I asked him about the pleasures and perils of playing a character who doesn’t conform to the combative TV-hero type we so often see. “It’s a pleasure and challenge,” he says. “The trick is, you’re playing a laconic character, and you can only go so far, so the key is to try to figure out how to throw rocks at that guy and how to make the situation complicated enough that the character remains a mystery and remains interesting, because without that, he just looks like a bored character.”

The word “laconic” is absolutely apt. Part of the show’s great charm is Raylan’s coiled quality. He is endlessly put-upon and eventually reacts, but more often with a deadpan quip than an explosion of physical or emotional rage. But isn’t that laconic quality difficult for a actor to maintain?

“You would think it is,” he says slowly, as if dipping into character, talking with words that ooze out. “But I’ve learned that the key to maintaining Raylan’s character is not having any urge to scream and shout and doing those big, big acting things. The calmer Raylan is, the more intriguing he is, the funnier the scene is and the sharper the show is.”

Olyphant then cites a scene in the second season where Raylan is obliged to attend a possible crime scene. His car pulls up and there is gunfire nearby. A bad guy emerges from a house, carrying a rat by the tail. The bad guy sees Raylan and declares: “Hey, you’re that U.S. marshal. I seen you on TV.” Raylan takes this in, ignores the commotion and as he puts on his hat says: “How’d I look?”

Olyphant laughs at the memory of it. “It was perfect for the show. The audience is thinking, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ and keeps watching to find out. Raylan stays the same. Laconic. Different stuff happens to him, that’s all.”

Olyphant, like everyone involved with Justified, cites Leonard’s work as the soul of the show. Raylan Givens only appears in a small handful of Leonard stories, which means that Justified extrapolates from a small body of work. Olyphant, who is now also a producer of the show, says Justified stays true to the creator. “Elmore Leonard wrote it and we’re having a conversation with him,” he says with a smile.

Yost isn’t quite as laid-back as Olyphant, and little wonder. A TV veteran, he runs Justified and is also behind the startling new FX spy drama The Americans (starts Jan. 30 on FX Canada). “This is an exhausting day,” Yost remarks as soon as he sits down. “I’m doing interviews and press for two shows, and I’m back to working on the Justified set later today.”

Yost says he knew when he read Leonard’s two novels and one short story about Raylan that there was a possible TV series, but had no idea where to take the plot. “I felt that would be a cool show, an interesting challenge, and Kentucky was a place where I hadn’t seen a show set before. So all of those things combined. It all came down to the guy in the hat, Raylan – that notion that he doesn’t yell except to warn people from danger. That’s not what’s expected. We’re just used to all these years of cop shows, of people yelling at each other, and I thought it would be really fun to show somebody who doesn’t do that. And it works in a world where none of them yell.”

Yost acknowledges that the pilot episode, which aired in the spring of 2010, had a peculiar twist that had to be rectified. “We killed Boyd in the pilot and then quickly saw that we didn’t want to do that, and that gave us a sense of the show’s future,” he says. “Boyd is this dark mirror to Raylan. That’s someplace to really go.”

The fourth season will see a little less of Raylan clashing with Boyd, at least in the opening episodes. (“Oh, but we talk on the phone,” Olyphant joked.) And there’s a single, expanding storyline about a crime that occurred decades ago. Raylan keeps his hat on and stays laconic, which is precisely what makes Justified just near-perfect drama.

All times ET. Check local listings.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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