“Justified,” now in its second season in the U.S. (Super Channel will have it later this month in Canada), is one of the most entertaining dramas on TV, and the best Elmore Leonard series since the lamented “Karen Sisco.” Graham Yost (Speed, Boomtown) has done a really good job with it, particularly when it comes to creating guest characters: many dramas have serious trouble creating one-shot or even recurring guests, once the backbone of the TV drama, because so much time is spent on the huge regular casts. But Justified has offered the kind of eccentric, memorable characters and guest actor showcases an action show ought to have, particularly the Alan Ruck character in “Long In the Tooth,” which is often seen as the episode where the show really came into its own.
Yost has an interview about the show with Maureen Ryan, where he mentions, among other things, that he basically had to darken up the show a little bit to FX’s John Landgraf would put it on the air. There are all kinds of stories that have floated around about HBO giving writers notes forcing them to make shows darker or more confusing, and it makes sense that FX would do that in a milder sort of way: if a cable network is very brand-conscious, they don’t want a show to seem too much like it could run on a regular network. Or, God forbid, USA.
Another thing Yost addresses is the thing every showrunner has to address in an interview at some point: standalones vs. arcs. Justified has settled into a fairly familiar pattern where the first part of the season consists more of standalone adventures and the rest of the season has fewer self-contained stories. You’ve seen this on everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Justice League Unlimited: the stories that need to be fully wrapped up in one episode are usually crowded into the first batch, followed by an almost soap-opera structure in another batch of episodes. This is a structure that works, when done right (i.e. not in Buffy season 7, which abandoned a pretty good batch of standalones for a pretty bad bunch of serialized stories), but there’s sometimes a tendency to assume that the first few standalone episodes are just filler until we can get to the “real” part of the season, the overarching plot. An example is Alan Sepinwall’s comment on Justified‘s first season:
After a terrific pilot episode, “Justified” stumbled a bit with too many disposable, standalone episodes in which Raylan dealt with bad guys totally unrelated to the season’s main plot. Some of those episodes were quite good, but overall there was a sense of marking time until the story arcs kicked in, and the season’s second half was unsurprisingly much stronger than its first.
Whether episodes work or not is a matter of taste, of course, but I don’t agree with the idea that an episode needs to be inextricably linked to the season’s main plot in order to be important. (The most important unit of TV is not the season but the individual episode, anyway; viewers may not always know which season something is from, or where a season begins and ends, but they always know that an hour-long episode is an hour long.) Once a show concentrates completely on an ongoing story, it tends to give short shrift to anything that doesn’t “matter” to that big story, which often happens to be the stuff that is most fun: guest characters, shifts in tone and structure from episode to episode, unusual plans to defeat the bad guys. Guest characters can even be the most moving, if their arcs within the one episode where they appear are handled properly; a guest can change, grow and die without as much fanfare or trouble as a regular. If a show concentrates too much on the arcs, that sometimes can mean we sit around waiting for something to happen; it also can mean that the episodes blur together too much in terms of style, but I’ve talked about that before.
(Update: See Alan Sepinwall’s reply in comments. It’s not that he objected to the presence of standalones but that most of them were, in his opinion, not as good as “Long in the Tooth” and tended to fall into a repetitive pattern, using the Elmore Leonard formula once a week instead of the once a year that his novels come out. This is indeed the biggest problem with making a good standalone — how to make one that isn’t exactly like the last one.)
Justified certainly seems to be moving more in the serial direction; as Yost tells Ryan, this season has a smaller number of standalone episodes before the serial story kicks in. But he hasn’t lost sight of the fun of a good standalone, and I hope he doesn’t as the series goes on:
I actually love doing stand-alone episodes because I love creating that really satisfying single hour. Because you know, you have two audiences. You’re got the people who are sampling and then you’ve got the people who get invested. So the people who get invested want the big story. Right? And the people who are sampling don’t want to feel lost.
The feeling was in the first season, the first seven or eight episodes needed to be more standalone while we built the framework for the serialized arc, then we could just go into that. Our feeling was with this season was that we could really, in terms of standalones, [do those in] the first four episodes. After that, everything is pretty much… I wouldn’t say [fully serialized], but there’ll be different facets [of the big story in each episode].
Which is great, but I don’t want to lose out on wondering what new creeps and eccentrics Timothy Olyphant can meet next week, and how next week will be different from this week. (I think Yost knows how to do a show without losing these things, so I’m not worried.) Some of the most interesting, exciting and moving parts of any TV show come not from the regulars, but from the star’s interaction with characters who don’t need to come back next week.