The original run of Justified opens with Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens blowing away a gunrunner at a swanky Miami rooftop pool after goading him into drawing first. When an internal affairs investigation opens up around his actions and Raylan is forced to return to Kentucky, Timothy Olyphant gets to perfect his comic timing, assuring anyone around the office who asks him that the shooting was, in fact, justified.
Justified: City Primeval, on the other hand, flips the script: as Deputy Givens is driving his troubled daughter Willa to a discipline-oriented summer camp, their car is rear-ended and father and daughter alike are approached by two men with a revolver. He gets the best of these small fries, of course, but something’s immediately different: Raylan — and his daughter — are in a type of palpable danger that never existed in the original series. The tone shift from “playful cowboy breaks the rules and always gets his man” to “concerned father aggressively pulls a shotgun from his trunk” is stark. We do get a bit of the ol’ Raylan razzle-dazzle shortly after in a courtroom as he tries to explain to a Detroit judge why he locked the two fugitives in a hot car while he and his daughter ate lunch, but that scene (and Keith David as Judge Alvin Guy) make it clear that the Givens charm is powerless in this new environment. It’s a heel turn for the show: City Primeval isn’t here to joke around.
When Justified debuted in 2010, Olyphant had already anchored three seasons of Deadwood, which still exists as one of the most literary prestige television dramas 17 years after it was canceled. Instead of mirroring that show’s construction with extended dialogue-free sequences to show a character’s moral dubiousness (like E.B. Farnum sneaking around to play both sides of a conflict), Justified had more in common with procedural, episodic basic cable shows like Burn Notice. That is to say, if Justified wanted you to know someone was an asshole, Raylan Givens would turn to Chief Deputy Art Mullen and say, “That guy? He’s an asshole.”
City Primeval, on the other hand, wants to be taken more seriously without really knowing how to pull it off. The show likes to linger on characters’ faces to show the quiet contemplation of an internal struggle. But this is a miniseries without enough time to dedicate to rich backstories; when attorney Carolyn Wilder (Aunjanue Ellis) is brooding outside of her house over an IRS lien in her ex-husband’s name, we don’t have the benefit of knowing their history. Sure, we can infer some troubled past based on a brief, previous interaction, but scenes like this lack the weight (and character development) they need to be truly impactful.
With an attempt at a more serious tone in a world where death has real consequences, City Primeval also lacks the excitement and action of the original series. Larger-than-life bad guy Clement Mansell (Boyd Holbrook) is nothing but menacing and violent. Boyd Crowder, on the other hand, was a dang hoot. While Mansell is a truly vicious junkyard dog who stalks Willa Givens just to get a rise out of Raylan, Crowder’s pursuit of crime was riddled with hijinks and hiccups that were downright laugh-out-loud funny. Walton Goggins’ wry performance was so delightful that Justified’s showrunners brought Boyd back after what was supposed to be a fatal shotgun blast to the chest at the end of the pilot episode. With Mansell, most viewers are stuck with a burning question after just a few episodes: Why doesn’t Raylan just shoot him already? If he’s a good enough character, they’ll just revive him.
Adapted from a 1980 Elmore Leonard novel, City Primeval has all the twisty makings of a good Leonard story. But without a lighter tone (and flat-out comedic relief), Justified: City Primeval lacks the joie de vivre of other Leonard adaptations, like Jackie Brown or Out of Sight. The novel doesn’t even feature the Raylan Givens character — Givens doesn’t show up anywhere in the Leonard-verse until 1993’s Pronto — which may be one of the reasons why he feels a bit out of place as he swaggers around Detroit. Maybe the years have been tough on Raylan Givens and he’s softened a bit, or maybe his character wasn’t quite as plug-and-play as the producers originally thought.
It’s not that City Primeval is a bad show, it’s just not very fun. The original run not only cast Patton Oswalt as local constable Bob, it gave him an AK-47 for a shootout with two old codgers with hunting rifles. And then, later, when the show needed it, Bob was beaten to a pulp in an effort to break him and learn Givens’ hiding place. That high-low dramatic swing is what drew viewers into those first six seasons. If Raylan and ex-wife Winona are going to be targeted by assassins in a warehouse gunfight, it’s not about either being in actual danger. Instead, it’s a scene to set up Winona agreeing to move with Raylan to Glynco, Georgia, where he’ll quit being a marshal and take up firearms instruction instead. In Justified, shootouts are catalysts for soap opera romance, where dead hitmen hired by her other ex-husband are just part of a will-they-won’t-they love story. When a gun comes out in City Primeval, there are no faceless goons around to kick the bucket for plot advancement; it means that you’re about to witness a brutal murder.
There are moments in City Primeval where that dead-serious tone really works. Vondie Curtis-Hall turns in an incredible performance as Sweety, a former funk musician who owns a bar and is haunted by a string of deadly robberies he participated in. He lives at the center of the story, attempting to use a dead judge’s little black book of crooked officials to blackmail himself into a better life while raising enough money to send Clement Mansell away for good. As the good guys and bad guys alike scramble to find this magic book, Sweety has to balance his disgust toward Mansell with his need for an intimidating partner, and the audience is immersed in a snowballing tragedy of small decisions. Sweety is our guide into the underground world of corrupt Detroit, and his quiet desperation is the sort of stuff brilliant character dramas are built around. And then Raylan Givens shows up.
The miniseries format isn’t very forgiving for a Givens story. Sweety’s life is a nonstop struggle, but there isn’t much room for anything else in order to get the story told in one season. In the original run, one-off episodes (like trailing vindictive Judge Mike Reardon as personal protection) let out the air when main storylines became too tense, and comic scenes were scattered throughout to keep things light. The show didn’t have a shortage of tragedy and pathos, but for every moment Raylan Givens says that he doesn’t care if his dad lives or dies, we also have Raylan shooting Dewey Crowe’s inflatable pool with Dewey and his two favorite employees naked inside, scrambling to cover themselves up and cursing the loss of an expensive purchase (made, of course, with state money awarded to Crowe over abuses administered by Givens himself). Though he was never asked, the audience can hear Olyphant’s delivery ring clear in their mind. That shooting? It was justified.
It’s obvious this miniseries has mistaken the popularity of Justified’s dark humor for darkness itself. It would be nice to see something like, oh, Jake Busey accidentally blow himself up just for a Boyd Crowder reaction shot or mid-level mob boob Wynn Duffy dragged out from his tanning bed wearing nothing but briefs at gunpoint, but showrunners Dave Andron and Michael Dinner seem hesitant to cross that line — even with all their experience working on the original series. City Primeval seems to think viewers want Clement Mansell to describe sticking the barrel of a revolver down his mother’s throat. As dark as Justified could feel at times, it was never this bleak.
Instead of a prime moment, whatever shootouts come at the end of City Primeval feel anticlimactic. Justified had Raylan quick-drawing on his No. 1 target within the first 10 minutes of the series, and it let us know he was a man on a mission with a million dollar smirk and an itchy trigger finger who gets things done. City Primeval feels like — and starts with — a detour on the way to a different and more classic Raylan Givens story. And maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll get one.