Procedural Pacing: FX’s Justified
April 8th, 2010
Over the past few days, there have been a number of pieces being written about FX’s future, as the network recently announced that they were moving away from their “edgy” persona in favour of something more akin to USA Network’s brand identity (Jaime Weinman has a great piece on the subject). It isn’t that the network will look no different than USA or TNT, but rather that they’re looking to be a slightly edgier version of those networks as opposed to the cable equivalent of HBO. The mantra may remain the same, in other words, but the point of comparison is shifting so as to take advantage of the current marketplace (where USA is tremendously successful and FX is doing just alright).
And I feel as if the ratings “drop” for FX’s newest series, Justified, has somehow gotten caught up in this particular announcement; James Hibberd of The Hollywood Reporter’s TheLiveFeed posits that the show’s dropping ratings are the result of the fact that the series began with a pilot and promotion (the latter of which is a fair point, and one that I can’t entirely fairly judge being north of the border) that looked like a serialized series more akin to the channel’s past but has over the next few episodes become more “procedural,” a term that Hibberd uses as if it were a four-letter word for those expecting something “serious.”
I haven’t written about Justified yet, but I’m quite enjoying the show, and more importantly I’m finding the show to be enjoyable entirely independent of whether or not it is delving into highly serialized storylines on a regular basis. In fact, I’d argue that it is integral to the show’s long-term future that they spend time giving us a sense of what Raylan Givens does for a living and how those stories may normally develop. Just because an episode uses “procedural” storytelling does not make it a procedural, nor does that preclude the series from becoming more serialized in the future. So long as the procedural stories the show chooses to tell are interesting, and so long as the stories seem designed to reveal more about characters and about the show’s universe, then the atmosphere and character development gained are well worth the lack of “serialized” material.
You could make the argument, I suppose, that if a show is going to try to balance serialized storylines with a procedural structure it is in their best interest to open with the serial hook in order to keep viewers engaged. However, considering that the show is trying to tap into Elmore Leonard’s trademark style, it’s very clear to me that they’re more concerned about atmosphere and other considerations than they are with providing some sort of hook. The hook, in other words, is in the structure of the series itself, and a lot of that has to do with the procedural element of showing both the Marshall and the criminal sides of the equation. And these opening episodes, while not spending an overly large amount of time on Walter Goggins or even Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens, have done a good job of letting us know how that structure works, and letting us see how Givens operates in the field and how the Kentucky office works around him.
And I’ve really liked the subtle work that the show has done around those ideas. I liked what Episode Two gave us in terms of some material on Tim: the “build a story around the target” scenario has really stuck with me, an intriguing idea that sort of captures the challenge of working in the Marshall service. And this week’s episode gave us some nice subtle Rachel material, including some frank conversations on what Givens is able to get away with in terms of his personality and how Rachel has been moved from the front of the line with his arrival. These may seem like small scenes, and they may not “matter” in the big picture, but the rapport between colleagues is something that the show needs in order to tell its stories.
While having different “targets” in each episode may be considered “procedural,” I have two tests for whether that’s actually a bad thing. The first is whether or not I’m enjoying those procedural stories, and the answer is yes: while this week’s episode (featuring Alan Ruck as a money launderer turned Dentist) was certainly the most enjoyable, both the escaped convict and the kidnapped bookie offered some interesting insight into both the criminal mind and, in the case of the bookie, some of the thematic concerns of the series. That’s the other test, really: are these stories offering any sort of cumulative opinion of the series? It’s not a question of whether or not skipping an episode seems like a viable option, but rather whether or not watching all of the episodes makes me feel differently about the series of its characters. These stories have given me a better sense of what Givens does and how he operates, enough so that my appreciation for the series has grown enough to say that the pacing is ultimately working in the show’s favour.
Now, just to be clear, there are many serialized shows that have started with more of a procedural focus. Dexter’s first season, for example, told a lot of stories beyond the Ice Truck Killer’s victims, allowing us to get a beat on Dexter and the other characters on the show out of the context of the show’s basic premise. Eventually, Dexter developed into a highly serialized series which focuses exclusively on big cases (which required a sudden shift from basic Homicide to Major Crimes between Seasons 1 and 2, but welcome to television), but it started with something closer to a procedural structure. Sure, the heavy first-person narration and the unique perspective offered by Dexter as a character kept thematic concerns grounded in a singular character study, but the show’s structure was still very different from what it would eventually come (the show even dropped Dexter’s own kills eventually, let’s remember).
I don’t think Justified is as interesting at taking the Marshall’s office and turning it into something completely different, but its ability to tell long-form cases in the future entirely depends on how we’re introduced to the character and the processes involved. These early episodes have done a good job of setting a tone for the series, which means that if the show introduces something more substantial or, yes, more serial in the future, then it will have greater meaning. The worst thing you can do with a show like this is pretend that U.S. Marshalls in Kentucky have these hugely complex and fascinating cases all the time – the reality is that this wouldn’t be the case, so capturing the minutia of the job on occasion (as I’d call the second and third episodes) and then sometimes delving into Raylan’s past (this week’s episode) seems like a good way to keep things interesting overall, as opposed to trying to make things as interesting as possible each and every week.
The reasons the ratings are dropping could be that people aren’t getting the show they expected: perhaps, based on Olyphant’s presence and FX’s past, they expected something more like Deadwood or The Shield and got something that Elize Morgan called “complete Western fluff” (as a compliment, just to be clear) on Twitter. But the idea that it boils down to serial vs. procedural seems to suggest that the show is incapable of doing both, and more importantly that a show must be one or the other. There are lots of reasons that the show’s ratings could be dropping (like V’s return into the timeslot last week, and The Good Wife’s return this week) which would result in lower ratings, and with DVR use factored in it may turn out that the show isn’t dropping that much at all.
While I know that we’re always quick to judge ratings performance, and that viewer expectations are an important part of that, I hope that procedural/serial can be separated from those discussions. The idea that procedurals are inherently light and without consequence while serial stories are deep and complex fails to recognize that both, done well, can result in great television. Justified may end up at its finest when it gets back to serialized storytelling (like the inevitable reunion of father and son, for example), but it’s remained pretty darn entertaining in perfectly enjoyable ways even without those sorts of connections. And as long as that remains the case, and as long as it still feels like Raylan’s apprehension about Kentucky and his quick trigger finger continue to manifest themselves in a way which creates some sort of long-term developments, I think a lack of serialization is, well…justified.
- I worry a little bit about how easily the show was willing and able to move the story to Los Angeles – the Kentucky location is sort of integral to Givens’ experience, and abandoning that without much pause seems like a bit of a stretch. However, I think it would be more problematic if Givens’ former cases (which offer a lot of potential) all happened to end up in Kentucky, so I’ll see how they negotiate the role of place in the series in the future.
- I really liked Olyphant in Deadwood, and he’s having a lot of fun with this role: it fits him extremely well, and it was interesting watching him sort of navigate his way through this case with a sense of personal responsibility for not bringing Roland in safely the last time.
- In terms of this week’s episode, I loved the amputee who traded cars with Roland – his outbursts were funny, sure, but I love how he started to warm to the Marshalls. Just a nice little series of scenes that I thought worked really well.