Phillip Thompson

Crime Fiction writer

These days, I mostly watch sports when the teevee is on. There are two shows, though, that I never miss: “Sons of Anarchy” and “Justified.” The reason? Story and characters.

“Sons of Anarchy” was my hands-down favorite (and if push comes to shove, still is), but after a second season of “Justified,” I’m feeling pulled more toward the latter.

Justified” is the story of Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal (played by Timothy Olyphant) who is a dead-eye with the Glock in his hip holster and a penchant for attracting trouble. When he guns down a Miami mobster in an outdoor cafe right out of “Miami Vice,” he is exiled (or repatriated?) to his native Kentucky, where the fun real begins.

Raylan is a good man fighting the bad inside him. Elmore Leonard may have created the character, but the writers of the show, and Olyphant, breathe life into him. Raylan fully understands that sometimes  you have to do a bad thing to make things good, and if not good, at least right.

The same holds true for the other characters — every one of them is suppressing, if not downright grappling with, an inner turmoil that eats at them. Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts) tries not to deal with the death he caused as an Army Ranger by focusing on his job, which consists of being a frighteningly accurate marksman. Art, Raylan’s boss, sees a little of himself in Raylan and even understands him, but is also the boss. Winona wants Raylan back, sort of. She wants him back, but only if he comes back the way she wants him to. But she hates living without him. And so on. It takes superb writing and acting to convey all this, and the show has it in spades. The dialect is dead on, the culture is pitch perfect (even if the show does occasionally slip into redneck stereotypes). I get these people. Hell, these are my people (to a certain extent, anyway). Every time I watch it, I see somebody I know. The cast is outstanding. Olyphant, of course, starred in HBO’s “Deadwood,” (more about that connection in another post), and other cast members bring authenticity to the Appalachian setting — none more so than Walton Goggins, who plays Boyd Crowder (and comes close, very close, to stealing the show). There are some things you just can’t fake, and Goggins stays true to his Southern roots with every line of dialogue. I mean, Olyphant is enough of actor to make you think he’s from Kentucky, but Goggins makes you swear he is (he was born in Alabama and grew up in Georgia). The cast, the writing and the authenticity combine to make a very powerful bit of story-telling. Like Larry Brown on TV. Really.

None of which diminishes my enjoyment of “Sons of Anarchy” one bit. Kurt Sutter is an interesting person and a great writer. And he knows how to keep his audience — in the off-season he regularly uploads to his “WTF? Sutter” YouTube page. Sutter’s mastery of the story arc — and some of the best acting on TV, via Ron Perlman and Katie Sagal, among others — make this show unmissable. You don’t have to ride a Harley to watch (but it helps!), and you don’t even have to appreciate the fact that the story is a very loose take on “Hamlet.” Where “Justified” is more of an intense interaction among complex individuals, “Sons” is more of a saga where the whole equals more than the sum of its parts. Yes, it has motorcycles, porn stars, guns, drugs and salty language, but underneath all the cuts and handguns and leather are stories about people — the good guys and the bad guys — living their lives the only way they know how, and making whatever accommodations they can to survive. There are scenes that make you squirm, not because of the violence, but because of the tension of the incessant moral dilemmas.

Two totally different shows. But, both are, as far as I’m concerned, the best-written shows on the magic box.

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