Tonight, the FX drama “Justified” finishes its third season, which has placed US Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) against the likes of Kentucky’s most dangerous (and often insane) criminals. “Justified,” which was created by Graham Yost and based on an Elmore Leonard character, has continually evolved from a standard crime show. Over its three seasons, it’s become one of the most critically applauded dramas on television. This might make you think about another show that shares the same DNA, “Dexter,” which started in a similar place before becoming a critical whipping boy over the last six years.
“Dexter,” thanks to Showtime, is more graphic, but the two shows carry much of the same blood. They’re both crime dramas centered on antiheroes who toe the line between ethical and moral decisions — though one is a serial killer and the other is a trigger-happy law enforcement agent. And yet, around its third season, critics started getting tired of “Dexter.” When reviewing the fourth season, Maureen Ryan claimed the show “is one journey that feels as though it has dragged on too long.”
What has Yost done to avoid to avoid falling into the same trap, and what should he and the show continue to do? Here’s a rundown of what has made “Justified” continue to work, and what “Dexter” can learn from it:
Don’t Create a Formula
The most pressing issue with the latter seasons of “Dexter” has been its continual repetition. Dexter (Michael C. Hall) finds someone who, like him, is a killer. The two come close to one other, and then Dexter must eliminate that person by the end of the season, thus resetting the status quo.
Meanwhile, “Justified” has put together three very different seasons when considering their narrative structures. The first used a serialized format similar to other procedurals out there, while the two that followed have centered more on season-long arcs. But while season two focused on Raylan’s battles with a Harlan Country matriarch, the marshall has been a bit player for much of season three as the show’s to focus on the battles between the different criminals. I never know what to expect when going into an episode of “Justified,” and that’s one of its best qualities.
Don’t Pigeonhole Characters
Part of the great backstory of “Justified” is that Walter Goggins, who plays Boyd Crowder, was only meant to appear in the pilot. But Goggins made the character so compelling he’s now a series mainstay. Better yet, Boyd has gone from demolition expert to religious preacher to security for a coal company to, now, a gang leader. Others, like Ava Crowder and Raylan’s father, have gone through similar changes.
Compare these secondary characters to Batista and Masuka on “Dexter.” We know exactly who they are, and they fill the same roles every year on the series even if their title in the office changes. “Justified” knows that just because a character acts one way for a season, they don’t have to come back the same way for the next.
Use Characters as Necessary
How often has “Dexter” forced us to view almost unforgivable subplots? Every season, characters like Quinn or LaGuerta run through the most strained narratives, which are perhaps included due to some contractual obligation. Meanwhile, as “Justified” has beefed up more interesting characters, it has dropped others. Raylan’s ex-wife has disappeared from the season and it’s unlikely she’ll remain a large part of the show.
In his recap of March 27th episode “Measures,” Scott Tobias noted that the installment marked one of the few appearances of fellow cop Rachel (Erica Tazel), who’s never given much of a role. I’m all for more of Tazel’s work in the show, but why give her a whole season-long arc? “Justified” has avoided such checklist style writing, and hopefully it will continue to.
Foreground Your Background
“Dexter” may take place in Miami, but it’s something the show often forgets. Sure, Dexter uses his boat to discard his victims, and the cops always talk about getting tacos, but otherwise, there’s no reason “Dexter” couldn’t take place in New York or Los Angeles. Week in and week out, “Justified” is set in eastern Kentucky, and constantly stays true to its “dirty south” vibe. Yost has made this a sticking point of the series (despite Elmore Leonard’s frustration over Raylan’s hat, which he feels is “too Western” and worn by the characters too often). It’s not just the drug culture, but also the accents, the quality and style of the criminals, and the cracking dialogue that has kept the atmosphere one of the show’s biggest pleasures.
One of the clear standout episodes of this season of “Justified” was February 14th’s “Thick as Mud.” Instead of focusing on any of the major characters, the main plotline followed Dewey Crowe as he raced around town robbing stores in order to pay a criminal to return his kidneys. It was bizarre, exciting, and also filmed in a very different style from the rest of the series. “Justified” took a complete chance on dedicating an episode to a minor character, which shook up the usual procedure of the show, and it was a total blast.
“Dexter” needs to go crazy, not just for one episode, but to revamp what we come to expect out the series. “Dexter” too often plays it safe, sticking to what has brought the series a large audience for six seasons. Last season’s finale finally seemed ready to signal a shift with Deb discovering Dexter murdering someone. Let’s hope that’s the beginning of something very different.