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Justified Season 1, Episode 1: Fire in the Hole

March 21, 2010

Author’s Note: Episode 2 of Justified forced me to reverse most of the positive opinions expressed below.

I’ve written about pop culture representations of the Appalachian regions of West Virginia and Tennessee—specifically, so-called “reality TV” depictions on Jamie Oliver’s cooking show and American Idol, respectively. Neither seems likely to do Appalachia any favors, though the extent of Idol’s “get the hell out before it’s too late” take on the region ended up being minimal after Vanessa Wolfe’s quick elimination from the contest. When it finally begins airing on March 26, I will be watching Oliver’s purported “Food Revolution” with keen interest. I don’t expect a properly nuanced or even all that fair analysis of the extensive, place-based socioeconomic difficulties underlying the widespread obesity in Huntington, West Virginia. I don’t expect Oliver to achieve or display any of the insight necessary to offer effective localized solutions to this public health problem. I hope the show proves me wrong. Stay tuned for future posts on this topic.

So call me biased and/or cynical based on these earlier arguments, but it doesn’t behoove me to lie about the fact that I approached the pilot episode of new FX series Justified with similarly low expectations. I actually feared that Justified’s dramatic, fictional version of eastern Kentucky would offer an even more unbalanced portrayal of Appalachia than what I’ve found in the aforementioned “reality” and “competition” idioms. I was prepared to don an even brighter-shaded “outraged Kentuckian” hat because Justified is actually set in my home state (mostly Harlan and Lexington).

If you watched the first episode, titled “Fire in the Hole,” I’d love to hear your thoughts in the Comments section below. I’ll go on record, and attempt to defend my position here, saying that Justified did better with the challenge of portraying a place and its people than I expected it would. And, if you’re not inclined to view media representations of Appalachia as all that big a deal (and, after a certain point, who’s got the time, right?), I’ll also say that the pilot positions Justified Season 1 to serve up some cracking good drama that’s worthy of your time and attention.

Regarding the first question—the reason I signed on to watch the show in the first place—some of Episode 1’s comments and, more important, its broad, stereotypical characterizations of Harlan folks were somewhat off-putting. I caught one use of the word “cracker” and a comparison of the inaccessibility of some mountain communities to what might be seen in North Korea. And yes, most of the Harlan residents we’ve seen thus far are card-(and gun-)carrying white supremacists, swastika tattoos and all.

In terms of the slurs and stereotype-based jokes, what sets apart these potentially damaging, credibility-destroying content elements from those found in nonfictional creations is that they don’t inherently come from an “outsider” point of view. In other words, and referring to the specific instances in Justified Episode 1, the word “cracker” is used by a Harlan character about himself. The joke about North Korea comes from one of the Lexington-based U.S. marshals, and it’s meant at least partially as a jab at the lead character rather than some sweeping insult of the region.

More problematic, of course, is that fact that everyone in Harlan thus far seems to be either a white supremacist neo-Nazi or related to one. This is a concern, and from a show with no established credibility, it would quickly become an urgent one. But I’m inclined to give Justified a little more time to show other types of Harlan residents and, especially, a diverse array of their reactions to the town’s small but prominent group of neo-Nazis.

I’m giving Justified this benefit of the doubt because I think the show did establish a degree of credibility. In terms of surface-level details, I didn’t find the accents to be all that bad, by and large. I’m not sure any of the actors did a convincing “mountain” accent, but at least they sounded like real southerners, a feat that many actors on many shows never manage (yes, I’m looking at you, True Blood).

More important, in its dialogue and many of its characters, even the least savory ones, the first episode demonstrates a grasp of and a willingness to get the hands dirty with regional complexities. The lead character Raylan Givens’ chief nemesis (and childhood friend), the brazenly racist, criminal ringleader Boyd Crowder, offers a few particularly interesting perspectives, including this one:

Yeah, all those days, good and bad, they all long gone now. Everything’s changed. It’s all changed. Mining’s changed. No more following a seam underground—it’s cheaper to take the tops off mountains and let the slag run down and ruin the creeks.

Granted, this observation serves as the prelude to a wild-eyed rant about the Jews who run the government and the world, but I’m willing to follow any show that allows even its worst, most deluded villains to display real intelligence and understanding of socioeconomic context. We’re also left with a few hints that Boyd’s seemingly racist motivations might be just a cover for his real interests—an abiding love of explosions, theft, and chaos (similar to that found in Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker) that overpowers any organized agenda.

I’m eagerly awaiting further explorations of this chaos vs. order theme, especially as played out between potential doppelgangers Boyd and Raylan, the latter of which has his own dark side and his own overriding preoccupations with the past, that which has “changed” and that which seems like it never will.

I’ll conclude by pointing to this exciting potential for intelligent engagement of universal themes as one example of the high-quality drama Justified seems poised to offer. I’m keeping my eye on its treatment of Kentucky and Appalachia, but I suspect that, even if the show crosses too many lines and starts reinforcing rather than challenging persistent stereotypes, I still may end up watching the rest of Season 1. However, Episode 1 gave me a surprising amount of hope that Justified will become a true pleasure, and not a guilty one, for this Kentucky viewer.

Postscript: Go here, here, here, and here for other perspectives (including one from Harlan’s local newspaper) on how Justified will (or may) portray its eastern Kentucky settings.

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3 Comments
  1. A. McKenzie permalink
    March 23, 2010 4:09 pm

    Few things distract me more than terrible southern accents in film and tv. Why can’t most actors even come close? I don’t need Daniel Day-Lewis, but take some voice acting, it’s the little things. I would have left Sandra Bullock as well – she chewed her tongue in “White Man’s Burden II”! At least Evan Rachel Wood doesn’t even try. I find Josh Holloway from Lost very convincing and enjoyable – native Georgian. His accent actually supplements, rather than distracts from, his character. I fear what Iraqis must think about the show casting a British-born Indian to portray one of their countrymen. Haven’t they suffered enough?

  2. September 27, 2010 3:21 pm

    I was searching about this issue everywhere,I was really curious about this…Really big thanks.I am thinking rent some episodes and movies soon.Looking for your next articles…

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