Prone to slow starts and whiz-bang finishes, “Justified” opens its fifth year in midseason form, following parallel plots involving U.S. marshal Raylan Givens and boyhood pal-turned-criminal Boyd Crowder. Few programs blend comedy and drama better, and the show continues to outdo itself in the casting department, particular in the use of comic actors in unexpected ways. FX has showier and more provocative programs in its holster, but probably not one that’s any more consistently enjoyable. With author Elmore Leonard having passed away in August, the current season has the look of a more-than-fitting tribute to his signature style.
The season opens with Raylan (Timothy Olyphant, never better) traveling to Miami to pursue a case and Boyd (Walton Goggins) experiencing some of the headaches associated with the dope business, even as he labors to find some way to get his fiancée, Eva (Joelle Carter), acquitted of murder charges.
Meanwhile, the show continues to weave in characters from the past as well as new ones. The latter includes Michael Rapaport as Darryl Crowe Jr., the brains, such as they are, of a redneck family with whom Raylan has had dealings in the past, and will again; Dave Foley as a Canadian drug kingpin; David Koechner as a Florida cop with whom Raylan gets temporarily paired; and Steve Harris and Wood Harris, real-life brothers playing a pair of enforcers working for a Nashville-based drug dealer.
Much like “The Good Wife,” “Justified” has excelled at bringing in top-flight performers for limited arcs. Yet if that CBS show deals in white-collar shenanigans, this one traffics in low-life culture, where the criminals are often as dirty and unshaven as they are hilariously dense. (Nor does it hurt that the guest stars generally appear to be having a ball.)
Like most of FX’s dramas, the series pushes as close as it can to premium-cable boundaries. “Can I get you a blowjob or something?” Raylan is asked when he goes to the local whorehouse looking for information.
At times “Justified” does seem more interested in atmosphere than plot, luxuriating in its quirky characters without moving the story along. Eventually, though, it usually gets somewhere interesting – and along the way manages to do something quite disarming and pleasurable in these sort of gritty, crime-infested worlds: actually have, and be, fun.
Showrunner Graham Yost has wryly described the writing staff’s guiding philosophy as “What would Elmore do?,” and FX’s extended premiere will include a brief tribute to the prolific writer. While Leonard’s hard-bitten characters, including those in “Justified,” were hardly the kind to indulge in maudlin testimonials, season five’s opening flurry certainly does him proud.