Last night’s Justified was a terrific episode that ended with a perfect, powerful “funny/serious” moment masterfully played by actress Margo Martindale. (“Funny/serious” moments are frequent on this show, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, a few others; they are ideas or twists that have the force of comedy — in this case, a moment when someone’s mood changes on a dime, a frequent comic device — but play not as comic relief but dark, even scary moments. The more they make you laugh, the more powerful and unsettling they are.) As usual on the show, Timothy Olyphant makes a terrific straight man to the craziness going on around him; he’s more than a straight man, of course, but a lot of his job is to anchor the stories and provide a sense of authority (moral and otherwise) that keeps it grounded.
And I think this is one thing that helps explain the greater success of Justified compared to the other guy-centric action dramas FX has launched recently. More generally, I think it’s an illustration of one thing a modern cop show may need to succeed. That one thing is, put simply, a central character who is clearly superior to everyone else on the show, or earns the right to dominate it. The type of character who conveys the impression that punks can’t get the upper hand over him for very long.
This type of lead character doesn’t need to be perfect, and he doesn’t even need to be conventionally heroic (though he usually ends up being heroic anyway, because the writers usually have to make him to the right thing when push comes to shove). He just needs to be the best, the one other characters defer to a lot of the time. It’s the old Sherlock Holmes type of formula: Holmes is not conventionally heroic in a lot of ways, but he is a superior being in the world of the stories. So is Marshal Matt Dillon and any number of Western sheriffs.
Many of the most successful mystery shows today use the large ensemble cast that is currently de rigeur for television drama, but make sure that the top-billed actor plays someone who is able to assert his superiority to the rest of the cast. House and NCIS are two of the most popular examples: Mark Harmon’s character annoys people because of all the ass-kissing he gets from the other characters, but that undeniably creates a centre of gravity for the entire show, just like Lorne Greene’s Ben Cartwright was the centre of Bonanza (because even though his sons were heroic too, he was clearly better and wiser than any of them).
Matt Seitz finds that this “one guy who’s better than everyone else” formula is just “an easy way to stroke the ego of a boss who’s not very smart or self-aware” — the network executives see themselves in these super-heroic star characters. And, taken too far, it does lead to excess. David Caruso is the most infamous current example: he is better than everyone else at everything, even stuff he shouldn’t know anything about, and all the other characters stand around feeding him straight lines. The Mentalist also does this, but being a much better show, it does this in a more self-aware way; it’s almost a conscious parody of the all-powerful, perfect hero and the incompetent team of idiots who surround him.
Justified manages to avoid this by the aforementioned strategy of making Olyphant the straight man. He gets plenty of one-liners, but he also gets his share of straight lines; he’s as likely to feed other characters the straight lines and depend on his air of authority to make it clear that he’s still in charge of the scene. Which he usually is. Update: Some good points in comments about other things the show does to prevent Olyphant’s character from being inhumanly perfect. (The fact that the hero needs to be the best at something does not mean he has to be the best at everything.)
But that feeling of an authoritative centre for a show does, I think, provide someone for us to look up to. Not identify with. We can identify with lots of people in a story; if a story is any good, we may identify with two people on opposite sides of an issue. But when it comes to heroes, especially heroes of law-enforcement stories (Westerns, cop shows), it often helps to have one person who we are a little in awe of, whom we can sort of aspire to be like in some way. Again, this guy doesn’t even have to be all that heroic. Clint Eastwood spent a lot of his career obsessed with playing anti-heroes or people with flaws, but one thing most of his characters have in common is that they’re awe-inspiringly good — Dirty Harry or The Man With No Name are sociopaths, but they’re the best.
It’s the difference, say, between two shows by creator Matt Nix: Burn Notice, a hit show about an incredibly competent hero who is brilliant and inspires awe, and The Good Guys, a flop where the top-billed character is supposed to be kind of ridiculous. Shows about un-heroic, incompetent or foolish heroes can be really good, but they often struggle compared to shows about god-like John Wayne/Clint Eastwood type heroes. Back in the ’70s, The Rockford Files (a success but never a huge ratings hit) almost died when it was up against Hawaii 5-0, which had the type of incredibly perfect and wonderful hero that Rockford was meant to debunk. And even Rockford, of course, was carefully set up to be as heroic as possible within the un-heroic framework: he was usually smarter than everyone else in the room, certainly handsomer and more charismatic, and he never came off as pathetic like the main characters of Terriers often (intentionally) did.
Having a superhero at the centre of your show does not guarantee its success, of course, nor does not having an awe-inspiring hero guarantee failure. Ensemble shows, or shows about wizened professionals just trying to do a job, have succeeded. But as we know from the success of Sherlock Holmes or Batman, there’s a very strong appeal to a central character who is The Best. Because if he or she isn’t The Best, then everybody on the show is just kind of a normal person, with varying levels of competence. And we can see those people everywhere we turn.