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‘Justified: City Primeval’ Is Worse Than Bad. It’s Boring.

Justified City Primeval
Image CreditFX Networks/YouTube

The drab sequel to ‘Justified’ completely misses the point.


Spoilers and venting below.

I’m now six episodes into the “Justified: City Primeval,” an eight-episode sequel to perhaps the greatest neo-Western ever made. And the critical acclaim it’s received is increasingly incomprehensible. The drab series completely misses the point and strips the show of all the charisma, interpersonal drama, sense of place, humor — even the colors — that made the original so engrossing.

“Justified” brought a reluctant Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens back to his hometown of Harlan, Kentucky, to the poverty-ridden hollers, farms, and abandoned coal mines, where he was fluent in the customs and language of the locals. “Justified: City Primeval” inverts that formula, dropping Raylan in the alien world of Detroit, like some contemporary Walt Coogan.

Yet, other than a couple of perfunctory street scenes, the viewer is denied any real sense of that city (and yes, I know the original was shot in California) or its inhabitants or, really, why Raylan is in town at all. “Justified: City Primeval” could have been set in Dayton or Jacksonville. Not even the homicidal “Oklahoma Wildman” — played with spirit by Boyd Holbrook — is from the city.

The plot revolves around a psychopath, a murdered judge, a notebook filled with the names of crooked officials, a defense lawyer, and the Albanian mob (the less consequential the country, the more menacing its gangsters, apparently.)  The bad guy resembles one of those Dixie Mafia thugs Raylan so easily dispensed with in the first series. But honestly, that makes the show sound far more riveting than it deserves. “Justified: City Primeval” is basically a “very special” multi-episode “Law & Order: Detroit.”

The real mystery is why Raylan is in the show at all. Though he’s far too sophisticated to act like a clueless hick, it doesn’t mean he isn’t in the wrong place. He’s definitely in the wrong place. Raylan is superfluous to the plot of the show, shoehorned in as if he were making a string of cameos. Sure, the writers try ginning up some tension by creating a personal grudge between Raylan and “Oklahoma Wildman,” who briefly menaces the deputy marshal’s daughter — played by Timothy Olyphant’s real daughter Vivian. Then there is an affair between Raylan and the ambitious defense lawyer (played by Aunjanue Ellis, who does as well as can be expected.) It is all really a tendentious effort to make you care.

Gone, though, are Art, Ava, Arlo, Dickie, Dewey, Duffy, Ellen May, Limehouse, Mags, Mike … and you get the point. Most noticeably gone is Boyd. Recall that Walton Goggins’ Boyd Crowder played so well with test audiences of the pilot, “Fire in the Hole,” that producers felt compelled to bring him back even after Raylan, a friend he’d once saved from sure death in a mine shaft, shot him in the chest.

The writers should have sprung Boyd from federal prison and driven him to Detroit. Then again, a spinoff featuring Boyd holding court in prison would have been immeasurably more entertaining than watching Raylan moping around with his wings clipped like some bean-counting consultant.

Now, the original series wasn’t perfect television — it took a couple of seasons to find its footing, not uncoincidentally when Boyd began getting a larger role. From the opening scene, the ultimatum and shooting of Tommy Bucks, the audience is introduced to the earnest, deadly confidence of Raylan, who functions nearly outside the law but always on solid moral high ground. You couldn’t stop watching.

But it was “Justified’s” finale that was perfect, and what I think makes this sequel especially infuriating. After years of deadly entanglements — and occasion allyship — a contemporary Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid sit across from each other, speaking through the glass of a jailhouse visiting room, just as you knew they would. Raylan is there to deliver some (fake) news:

Raylan: You asking why I came? I thought it was news that should be delivered in person.

Boyd: That the only reason? After all these long years, Raylan Givens, that’s the only reason.

Raylan: Well, I suppose if I allow myself to be sentimental, despite all that has occurred, there is one thing that I wander back to.

Boyd: We dug coal together.

Raylan: That’s right.

If you’re going to keep the story going after that ending, it better be great. Either of those scenes is infinitely more compelling than the whole of “Justified: City Primeval.” And yet, I keep watching because surely by episode eight’s finale, Raylan will do something worth watching. Right?

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