A sexy, funny and violent riff on the writing of crime author Elmore Leonard, FX’s TV series “Justified” pulled off several difficult tricks with panache. It wasn’t preachy, yet it was more attuned to the sociopolitical realities of this country than more self-conscious shows. It brought into the modern age two misunderstood genres—the western and the noir. And it refused to turn the American South into a cartoon, neither ridiculing nor sentimentalizing a part of the country that Hollywood often doesn’t want to understand. The show is classic but fun. For six seasons from 2010 to 2015, it was like getting an Elmore Leonard novel delivered to your couch weekly.
Which is to say that the eight-episode miniseries “Justified: City Primeval” has a legacy to face. Michael Dinner, a director and producer of “Justified,” is the show-runner this time, and he’s brought back Timothy Olyphant as the suave and tortured U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, who serves as a straight man to a litany of eccentric outlaws. The best that I can say about “City Primeval”—and it’s not insignificant—is that Dinner and company conjure in fits and starts the feel of “Justified.” It doesn’t have that desperate, flop-sweat vibe of many reboots and years-later sequels. It’s enjoyable, sometimes potent, and hums with an efficiency and style that should shame many crime shows.
“In fits and starts” is still a bit of a rub if you are, like me, a fanatic about “Justified” and Elmore Leonard in general. This show is set in Detroit, one of the iconic cities of Leonard’s writing, including 1980’s “City Primeval,” the novel that furnishes this new production with much of its narrative. “Iconic” also suggests familiarity though, and Detroit is a much more routine play-land for crime TV than the Kentucky backwoods of “Justified.” The characters of the “City Primeval” miniseries, with a few notable exceptions, are also less memorable than the roster of the original show.
More than other Leonard adaptations, even superb movies like “Jackie Brown” and “Out of Sight,” “Justified” was in sync with Leonard’s willingness to plumb his characters’ poignant and awful hungers. In league with the self-consciousness of our times, “City Primeval” sands the edges off of several of its characters, particularly Alvin Guy, a Black judge that ranks as one of the more shameless con artists in Leonard’s canon. Keith David invests the role with style and swagger, but the character’s juiciest and most resonant bits have been omitted, maybe out of fear of giving offense. And Clement Mensell, the invincible bad boy that sets the story in motion, is shockingly generic, having been shorn of Leonard’s specificity by the writers and played by Boyd Holbrook in a performance that feels on loan from Ben Foster or Garret Hedlund’s coterie of sweaty hipster rednecks. He’s not bad, but the role is familiar. It can’t begin compete with the villains of “Justified,” especially Walton Goggins’ singular Boyd Crowder.
In Leonard’s “City Primeval,” Alvin and Clement are explicitly drawn as racist. The judge enjoys helping himself to all that his power can offer, including turning the tables on white people. He is cynical and vital and disgusting and hilarious in his unapologetic venality. David, a great and legendary character actor with many alphas on his resume, is not afraid of this characterization, and some of it winds up onscreen—but the writers’ loss of nerve is a missed opportunity. Hedlund’s Clement is drawn with similar caution: In the book, he resents Blacks, especially those with power, and he kills the judge in what should have been a minor dust-up. Obviously psychopathic, which does translate onscreen, Clement was looking for such an opportunity. In the show, he’s just another borderline invincible hillbilly demon who’s easy for the audience to distance itself from.
Each embodying clichés of what the other resents in the other’s race, Alvin and Clement collide in a fashion that feels inexorable in Leonard’s book. The murder of the judge is sickening—a break from our disreputable enjoyment of his antics, which were the softener before the blow. Yes, the event I’m discussing at length is the inciting incident of book and show, but it indicates why TV’s “City Primeval” can entertain you without quite feeling like it has a punch. This incident in the book shows how crime novels can explore social issues without turning into Oscar movies, and Leonard is among the form’s masters. Dinner and co. are so skittish with the material that Alvin’s killing onscreen barely makes any sense. “Justified” was not afraid of such uncomfortable social portraiture; daringly, it suggested that many battles in the redneck underworld were modern extensions of the Civil War. It suggested all that without getting pompous or losing its cool, without failing to appreciate, say, the sweat on Rayland’s glass of bourbon or on the neck of a woman shooting him glances from the bar.
But I digress. Since “Justified,” Raylan has been living in Florida, seeing his teenage daughter, Willa (Vivian Olyphant, Timothy’s daughter), and presumably staying out of trouble. A road trip goes awry and long story short, Raylan ends up in Detroit investigating several murders. Alvin is among the victims, and he kept a black book with dirty intel on everyone of note in the city. These murders set forth a traditional Leonard scramble, with folks on various levels of the social food chain shuffling to get what they can out of a nasty situation. Raylan falls into a quasi-romance with Carolyn Wilder (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), a defense attorney looking for a judgeship of her own, who’s connected to a failed jazz musician and bar owner, Sweetie (Vondie Curtis-Hall), both of whom are also linked to Holbrook’s boogeyman, Clement.
What results from this melee is a round of surprise deaths and games of tag, with Raylan and Clement taunting each other in a game of chicken. The tightness of the new show’s construction—eight episodes, after all—actually works against it to a degree. I enjoyed the leisurely, sunbaked Southern ramble of “Justified,” which made the violence all that more startling when it arrived. Here, propulsion and escalation are the name of the game, with precious little of Leonard’s segues. There are exceptions though. An ongoing callback to a hidden gun at Sweetie’s bar has a wonderful and ironic payoff. A cocktail waitress is played by Adelaide Clemens with a distinctive mixture of naiveté, tartness, and desperation that recalls the multifaceted women of “Justified.”
My carping aside, “City Primeval” offers many pleasures. The highlight of the new series, apart from Olyphant’s ferocious deadpan timing, is Curtis-Hall, an actor who should be more famous than he is, and who invests Sweetie with doomy grandeur. Curtis-Hall suggests the weight of the past that hangs over Sweetie and even the other characters, investing “City Primeval” with a tragic undertow that distinguishes it from the farcical chaos of “Justified.” That is, until Dinner and co., knowing what we truly want, make a last-ditch effort to play the old hits. The last few scenes of “City Primeval” are a pyrrhic victory: they are exhilarating and leave you wanting more as well as prompting you to wonder why Dinner didn’t just tell this story to begin with.
Another, equally suitable title could’ve been “Justified: Test Drive.”
“Justified: City Primeval” premieres on FX this week, and will air weekly throughout the summer. Each episode will be available on Hulu the day after airdate.”