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Badge of honor: FX's Justified cools it a bit without losing an edge

Timothy Olyphant again goes the honorable lawman route in FX's Justified. He previously rolled that way in HBO's Deadwood. FX photo

Premiering: Tuesday, March 16th at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Timothy Olyphant, Nick Searcy, Jacob Pitts, Erica Tazel, Joelle Carter, Natalie Zea, Walton Goggins, Raymond J. Barry
Produced by: Graham Yost, Elmore Leonard, Sarah Tiimberman, Carl Beverly, Michael Dinner

FX's "There Is No Box" brand basically has brought viewers an assembly line of anti-heroes or worse on the drama front and arrested adolescents in the half-hour comedy genre.

Publicity materials for Justified, originally announced as Lawman, describe its principal triggerman as "a true-blue hero and something of a throwback."

It's a good thing the network didn't throw him back. Timothy Olyphant, best known as Deadwood's conscience-in-residence, Sheriff Seth Bullock, returns the favor in large degree as strong, soft-spoken, but steely-eyed Raylan Givens. His moral code: "You make me pull, I'll put ya down." So far it's worked for him. And Justified is a deftly understated vehicle for his adventures.

Tuesday's premiere of Justified (the lead character originated in novels by Elmore Leonard) turns out to be notably darker in tone than two subsequent episodes sent for review.

Givens is first seen in Miami, where he's ordering a killer to get out of town on his deadline or face the consequences. The bad guy has done a big past favor for Givens, so his refusal makes it especially tough. But when pull comes to shove . . .

The resultant PR problem results in Givens' being exiled back to his native Kentucky, where he grew up as a coal-digger before escaping to become a U.S. Marshal. He likewise was fleeing from close proximity to his father, Arlo (a so far unseen Raymond J. Barry), a career criminal who's still serving time.

There's also an ex-wife named Winona (Natalie Zea) in the re-blended Lexington, KY mix. She left Raylan six years ago and since has remarried. But she still sees him as "the angriest man I have ever known." So far, though, he keeps his temper at a simmer, internalizing whatever demons might still be eating away at him. Suffice it to say they aren't likely to ever approach those of Rescue Me's ever-tortured and bombastic Tommy Gavin.

Episode 1 also is very notable for the return of Walton Goggins from The Shield as a bank-robbing, church-bombing white supremacist named Boyd Crowder. He and Raylan were hell-raising boyhood pals who worked the mines together. But the law is the law, and we'll leave it at that.

Goggins is billed as a guest star for now, with much to do in Tuesday's opener and a pivotal early scene in Episode 2. He's uniformly terrific in this dark, disturbed role, and seems destined to settle in as Justified moves on.

Raylan's new/old boss is laconic Art Muller, played with a very winning simplicity by veteran character actor Nick Searcy. Two younger deputy marshals, Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts) and Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel), take turns assisting Raylan in his appointed rounds. Those rounds sometimes take him in the vicinity of lithesome Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter), a onetime high school cheerleader who still has the yoo rah rahs for him.

The tightest, smile-inducing writing so far belongs to Episode 2, in which two members of a prison blue grass band escape from an off-site gig. Episode 4 (the third hour wasn't ready yet) finds Raylan on the trail of a fugitive with whom he's very familiar.

Justified isn't shy on bloodshed, but it's not of the particularly grisly sort. This is a quietly violent series in what has become the familiar Elmore Leonard mode. Bad guys are people, too, and some of them are quick with a quip. Not to the point of slap happiness, though. There are no keystone cops in play. And the lawbreakers still have enough of an edge to them -- particularly Goggins' Boyd Crowder -- to keep Raylan on the toes of his cowboy boots.

Olyphant sturdily takes overall command with both a basic code of honor and an appreciation of a stiff drink or two. He puts the overall giddyap in Justified, making it FX's best drama series since Damages. It's nice to see the network try a little tenderness for a change with a drama that curbs its enthusiasm for aggressively anti-hero males and instead gives viewers an easier to swallow blend of Southern Comfort and lemonade. It's a pleasure to drink to that.

GRADE: A-minus