Monday Morning Critic: The Return of ‘Justified’ and the Premiere of ‘Backstrom’
[Ed. note: Because of yesterday's holiday, Monday Morning Critic is running on Tuesday. So, without further ado, this week's edition of Tuesday Morning Critic.]
Welcome back to another installment of the Monday Morning Critic. In this space each week, I’ll be looking at the week that was in addition to the week ahead in television. The format will shift each week, as the world of TV will dictate the form and content of each piece.
In this week’s installment: two reviews and a hail of TV-related thoughts in bulleted form.
In the past, I’ve taken an approach towards pilots that I will occasionally deploy here in the ‘MMC’: The 5 Questions And 500 Words approach. The title pretty much serves as a descriptor: Instead of overloading both you the reader and I the critic with an avalanche of words about all major pilots about to premiere, I’ll cut to the chase as quickly as possible in order to save you time and me some sanity. It’s hopefully a win-win situation. With that in mind, here are another two such reviews.
‘Justified’ premieres on January 22 on FX at 10 pm EST
How would you describe your relationship to this show?
I think ‘superfan’ does it justice, although last season tested that love something fierce. It was probably the worst season of a show this great that I can remember, if that makes sense. ‘Justified’ had its end game in mind, but had to spend thirteen episodes essentially kicking the tires and waiting to get to the good stuff. The last ten minutes of the season five finale for thrilling for what it promised, but made the previous season even more frustrating as a result.
Now that you’ve seen the first three episodes of this season, does it live up to the promise of those ten minutes?
I’d say the show certainly FEELS like ‘Justified’ again, even if I worry there’s a ‘Spider-Man 3’ situation here where too many villains may be clogging up the show’s narrative arteries. This is ostensibly the Raylan/Boyd/Ava season, the culmination of the tensions and machinations between this trio over the past five seasons. And yet, we get a whole new Big Bad, the Big Bad’s associates, and more of another heavy introduced relatively late in season five.
But don’t those three need external reasons to stay in conflict?
I get all that. But instead of making things leaner in season six, ‘Justified’ has opted to make it fatter in these early episodes. There are worse ways to make things fatter than introduce characters played by Sam Elliot and Garret Dillahunt (both in town with a plot involving buying up homes in Harlan, for unknown reasons), and all new additions feel like solid, lived-in parts of this Elmore Leonard-inspired world. But ‘Justified’ truly crackles when it puts its long-standing characters in the way of one another and lets the words (and the bullets) fly.
Wait, there’s a real estate plot? Is this now ‘House Hunters: Harlan’?
No, but I’d watch that show every day, and twice on Tuesday. Raylan Givens as a real-estate agent would be amazing. Every time someone complained about the lack of granite countertops, he would break their nose.
Is the show limping to the finish line?
Certainly not. The show has a history of cleaning house and making a major pivot around the halfway point, so I expect a lot of the ancillary characters to be largely gone around the season’s halfway point. In Raylan/Boyd/Ava, ‘Justified’ has three of the more compelling characters on TV. Each one of them lays claim to the protagonist/antagonist of the show. And all three have enough bad karma built up to see a less-than-happy end when all is said and done. And yet, I’ll somehow feel bad should any of them not achieve their goals, which is what makes ‘Justified’ both supremely entertaining but also often heartbreaking. This is a show that rarely gets mentioned as the best TV of the past decade, yet I’d put its second season up against again season of any show ever. The show has yet to return to that level of consistent greatness, but flashes signs of that brilliance so often that it’s a show I think people will continue to find and enjoy for decades to come.
‘Backstrom’ premieres on January 22 on Fox at 9 pm EST
Can you describe your overall impression of the show while mimicking the central affection of its titular character?
“I’m a gruffy, baldy, cynical TV critic who probably won’t watch any more episodes of this show other than those offered up for review. But I also think this has a chance of being a medium-sized hit that will give the network some much needed stability in its one-hour dramatic programming.”
That…sounds like you’re damning it with the faintest of praise. Should I actually watch?
‘Backstrom’ has the central thing needed to sustain itself over the long haul: a great group of central actors that overcome the scripts’ initial shortcomings. Hart Hanson knows a thing or three about creating compelling characters as the creator of ‘Bones,’ and I would argue that few are watching that show for its mysteries. Those are warm, likeable characters that people genuinely care about, which is why ‘Bones’ will outlast us all. Even if nuclear winter arrives, another season of ‘Bones’ will follow.
So ‘Backstrom’ is just the police procedural version of ‘Bones’?
Well, I’d argue that ‘Bones’ is already the police procedural of ‘Bones.’ But that’s neither here nor there. What I’m really getting at here is that there was enough surprising character work in the first few episodes of ‘Backstrom’ that let me imagine a scenario in which spending a lot more time with these characters would eventually overshadow the need for clever mysteries. Sure, Rainn Wilson is great as the lead detective, eschewing likeability at every turn, even if his gruff exterior plays more as tics rather than true character at the outset. But the rest of the police squad that Hanson surrounds him with land with specificity that often takes much longer to develop. In particular, Kristoffer Polaha as the ying to Wilson’s yang is a true delight from minute one. I’d also probably watch Dennis Haysbert read the phone book, so having him along helps as well.
Are all the characters that entertaining?
I’m concerned the characters here are either too weird to all share the same room or so boring that you forget they are even there. For instance, Beatrice Rosen plays a foreign-born Manic Pixie Dream Analyst, and Thomas Dekker plays a character that acts primarily with his eyeliner. Meanwhile, ostensible second lead Genevieve Angelson barely registers, and is often relegated to Exposition Girl Who Questions The Lead. But that’s a balancing act the show has time to figure out. I’d rather have a show with too much quirk than not enough, especially if the show is designed to be a light procedural instead of a white-knuckle thriller.
How long will I know if I’ll stick with this show?
There’s a moment at the end of the second episode that sold me on the show’s potential, even if, as I said at the outset, there’s not a big chance I’ll keep watching. But just because I won’t doesn’t mean I can’t see a lot of people enjoying this. There’s a sizeable market for the type of TV entertainment Hanson provides, and his sure hand at the helm suggests a good future for this program.
A few stray bullets about TV-related matters….
- Really enjoyed the first two episodes of the final season of ‘Parks And Recreation,’ even if seeing Leslie and Ron fight made me physically nauseous. (I may or may not have a lot invested in their platonic friendship.) Primarily, I over-identified with April and Andy dealing with that horrible thing called “maturity.” This show may not make me laugh out loud as much as it once did, but I am usually smiling the entire episode, which is far from nothing.
- Over the holidays, I became obsessed with a show on Velocity called ‘Chasing Classic Cars.’ It’s now the show I watch when I have twenty minutes, don’t feel like using my brain, and simply want to let something unfold in front of my eyeballs. I partly enjoy this show since it’s a painless history lesson in the form of old automobiles as well as providing the vicarious thrill of watching other people spend ridiculous amounts of money at auctions. ‘Chasing Classic Cars’ scratches the ‘Cash In The Attic’ itch that’s long needed attention.
- I mentioned ‘House Hunters: Harlan’ earlier, because like any law-abiding citizen of the United States of America I watch every iteration of that HGTV franchise like it’s my job. But I do think the network is missing the potential in spinning off each show as a ‘Mystery Science Theatre 3000’-type program, with comedians providing audio commentary and analysis throughout each episode. Lord knows my wife and I sling insults at the couples and argue over which house/international house/island/castle/tiny house/tiny castle/tiny dancer the two may pick. Actually, I might do this myself at some point. Forget I said anything.