Having mastered season-long arcs filled with fabulous guest characters — and coming off brilliant back-to-back seasons — “Justified” is perhaps to be forgiven for a slow start in hitting the reset button. Always fun, the first two hours of the FX drama’s fourth season are also meandering, introducing several new players, but as yet failing to betray much about how or when they’ll intersect. Fortunately, star Timothy Olyphant by himself remains ample reason to tune in, and the show has built up enough goodwill to postpone rendering a verdict, which is essentially what these episodes require.
Olyphant returns as U.S. marshal Raylan Givens, a Kentucky native with a shoot-first, modern-day cowboy attitude. Droll and lanky, Givens is moonlighting as a bounty hunter (he needs the extra scratch) and begins to get drawn into a 30-year-old case apparently involving his low-life father (Raymond Barry), who’s already in prison for murder.
Meanwhile, Givens’ boyhood pal and local drug dealer Boyd (Walton Goggins) has his own unique set of problems for what might be called a small-business owner, including the arrival of an Elmer Gantry-like preacher (Joe Mazzello) whose snake-handling ministry arouses suspicion — and could complicate Boyd’s operation, even as he takes on a former war buddy (Ron Eldard) as an enforcer.
Although “Justified” isn’t always mentioned in the same breath with some of cable’s most prestigious dramas, last season’s twisted alliances and terrific heavies (here’s to you, Neal McDonough and Mykelti Williamson) put it on par with many of them. The oversight might have to do with the conventional, at-times-procedural trappings — laconic lawman, quirky criminals — but the series has a tone and pacing all its own as derived from Elmore Leonard’s novels and adapted under the stewardship of showrunner Graham Yost.
In addition, “Justified” has been adept at layering each new batch upon remnants of the preceding one. Thus far, though, nothing in these chapters as yet hint at rising to that level, though there is some extremely funny stuff in the premiere (Patton Oswalt represents another welcome addition in the comic relief dept.), and to be fair, the series traditionally gains momentum as the season progresses.
In short, those eagerly anticipating the program’s return will have to exercise a little patience. On the plus side, if the past is any guide, despite initial reservations about season four’s direction, the wait will be justified.