Justified: a drama series with a just cause

Humour and violence make for an explosive mixture in the TV show Justified.

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To be funny, smart, dark and deadly - and do all of the above, believably, in a cowboy hat - is a tall order. Yet the actor Timothy Olyphant makes it look like child's play as he engages in gunplay as the US Marshall Raylan Givens in the modern Western television series Justified.

To say Givens is unflappable is an understatement.

Here's what he had to say, gently and smiling, while staring down the barrel of a bad seed's shotgun: "I don't pull my sidearm unless I'm going to shoot to kill. That's its purpose, huh? To kill. That's how I use it. I want you to think about that before you act and it's too late."

Givens is a lawman straight out of the 19th century, whose no-guff brand of justice puts a target on his back with criminals and puts him at odds with his superiors.

The author Elmore Leonard - whose oeuvre includes Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, 3:10 to Yuma and Out of Sight - praises Justified as one of the finest adaptations of his work, and singles out Olyphant as "the kind of guy I saw when I wrote his lines".

In its first season, Givens was reassigned from Miami to his childhood home in the poor, rural coal-mining town of Harlan in eastern Kentucky - a place he'd rather not be, where too many shadows haunt him from his past.

Now, five episodes into the third season, Givens finds himself facing off against dirty politicians, secret fortunes, a mystery man called "Limehouse" (Mykelti Williamson) and the lethally enterprising Detroit crook Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough), who thinks he's smarter than the local "rednecks". It would seem everybody's making a play to rule the Harlan underworld, a flummoxing turn of events for Givens's charismatic nemesis and the local crime boss Boyd Crowder (Walter Goggins).

This week's episode, When The Guns Come Out, totally lives up to its title: it opens with a brutal shoot-out in Boyd's "oxy-clinic" for pill-poppers. This gory spark sets the Harlan underworld ablaze; all the guns are now unlocked, loaded and cocked in a season that will also delve into Givens's raw relationship with his corrupt dad, Arlo (Raymond J Barry).

Recently renewed for a fourth season, Justified is often lauded by US critics as the best series on the FX network - that's heady praise when one considers its FX stable mates: How I Met Your Mother, American Horror Story, Louie, Sons of Anarchy, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Wilfred. Best of all, Justified nicely scratches that itch we've all felt since Deadwood turned into dead air in 2006.

"Sometimes we get lost in the mystique of Raylan Givens. The hat. The gunplay. The witty words uttered from that handsomely crooked smile in the most dire of circumstances," writes Tim Surette of TV.com. "But even though he's a man who's larger than life he's still a man, same as you and me."

In 2010, Justified won a Peabody Award and, last year, was nominated for four Emmys, all for acting, including Olyphant for outstanding lead actor in a drama series. While he didn't win, Margo Martindale did get the Emmy for outstanding supporting actress in a drama series for her brassy turn as the second-season crime-family matriarch Mags Bennett.

With Justified's growing viewership - up eight per cent from last season - and Olyphant's enthusiastic, active collaboration with the series' writers and executive producers on storylines, it would appear he has found his heart's desire: "Before I started getting involved in stories, I would find myself, in between takes, looking for something to be interested in doing … pretending to be reading a book, or making phone calls, when nothing was going on," he says.

"Now I have this wonderful excuse - I'm working on the show. I'm working on the next episode.

"The fun of it is not knowing and just kind of going with your gut, to see where [the story] takes you … And if it's a really funny scene, you want to know if there's a possibility for violence, the possibility for something unexpected."

Justified is broadcast on Mondays at 9pm on OSN First / OSN First HD and 11pm on OSN First +2