He had us at "Kablam!"
From the first time Justified's retro lawman Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) did his Gary Cooper walk into the frame and - within the pilot episode's opening three minutes - laconically disposed of Miami hit man Tommy Bucks, we've loved him. After being transferred to his home state of Kentucky, the deputy U.S. Marshal has had to put down his share of scofflaws and ne'er-do-wells in Harlan County. But Season 4 has reaffirmed that our hero is just as much fun to watch when he's trying to figure out whom, exactly, to slap the cuffs on.
We're not alone in our love: This season's premiere on FX was the most watched episode of the series since the pilot, with 5.3 million viewers tuning in live or time-shifting. Network president and general manager John Landgraf attributes that growth to the show's uncommon depth. "We'd never really deeply examined the motivations of the white-hatted hero," he says. "We just knew he was good, they were bad. On one level, Justified is a wildly entertaining, funny, modern take on a Western. On the other hand, you can experience it as a really good book."
Literally. Justified began as an adaptation of the 2001 Elmore Leonard short story "Fire in the Hole," which featured Raylan Givens, a character who had appeared in two previous novels. Executive producer Graham Yost leaped at the chance to bring his self-proclaimed "25-year Elmore Leonard obsession" to fruition, but it was Olyphant who, halfway through Season 1, mentioned to Leonard that the show's creative team would love to have more material from which to crib. Leonard, notoriously finicky about adaptations of his work, was inspired to write Raylan, a novel of three loosely connected stories that became the backbone for Season 2 and provided plotlines and characters for Seasons 3 and 4. "For Graham and Tim," the book's dedication reads.
Yost and Olyphant spend a lot of time thinking about Leonard's dark, wry sense of humor and try to inject a little of it into every scene. That occasionally results in pulpy bits, such as chopping various limbs off scoundrels or having a snake sink its teeth into someone's face. "It's our job to go up to the line and dance around it on occasion," Yost notes. And that's what makes Justified the best drama on TV right now: It's not just good for you; it's great fun, too.
Page 2 of 3 - Raylan's life is about to get a little less fun and a lot more complicated, thanks to the impending arrival of his first child with ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea). "A funny thing happens to most people when they have a kid," Olyphant says. "They stop thinking about how their parents see them and start thinking about how their kid is going to see them." Having grown up in the shadow of his criminal father Arlo's failures, Raylan sees solving the season's main mystery - the search for a presumed dead Dixie Mafia player named Drew Thompson - as a way to finally become someone other than "The Guy Who Shot Tommy Bucks."
And if, in the service of that goal, a few legal corners have to be cut, so be it. "That's what's fun this season - watching Raylan do things where you're like, 'God, he knows this is a bad idea,'" says Olyphant. Despite Raylan's many sins, including a kill count that would probably mean early retirement for most real marshals, his career is not yet in jeopardy, partially because of the good grace of Chief Deputy Art Mullen (Nick Searcy). Searcy says that leniency comes from Art having once been a bit of a Raylan himself, back in the day. "Art's learned from his mistakes," he adds. "Unlike Raylan, who's still in the middle of his mistakes."
Though the show at its core is about the Man in the White Hat, the colorful characters who surround Raylan are just as captivating - none more so than former friend and budding nemesis Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). "Boyd is doing a lot of dancing this season," Goggins drawls, before disappointingly admitting that we won't see any more of the actor's clogging (he was a champ as a child).
Currently, Boyd is celebrating his impending nuptials with former sister-in-law Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter). But because his deal to take over half of the Dixie Mafia's heroin business upon delivery of Thompson was made with Justified's resident cockroach, Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns), "pretty soon he's going to be dancing for his life."
For more on Justified and TV's best dramas, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine on newsstands Thursday, February 21!