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TERRY GROSS, host:

Actor Timothy Olyphant starred as stoic sheriff Seth Bullock in the HBO series Deadwood. Starting tonight on the FX cable network, hes back playing another man with a badge, this time in Justified, a modern day Western based on Elmore Leonard stories.

TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI: The odds against Timothy Olyphant finding another TV role even close to matching the quirkiness and intensity of Deadwood were pretty high. After all, David Milch's Deadwood was a weird Western mixture of Shakespeare and "Rocky Raccoon." It was one of the best TV shows of the past decade, with literally dozens of fabulous characters and actors. And Olyphant's reluctant sheriff, a quiet man with a very short fuse, was one of its biggest standouts.

Yet, here the actor comes again the new FX series Justified, intentionally and successfully flirting with his own TV past. His new character, Raylen Givens, is a present-day U.S. marshal, but he's wild, wild West all the way. He's a fast draw and an expert shot. He wears a Stetson, maybe the first TV cop since Dennis Weaver's McCloud to get away with that. And after outdrawing and killing one bad guy, Raylen is transferred from the sunny skies of Miami home of Burn Notice and Miami Vice to his former home in the backwoods of Kentucky. From gold mines to coal mines. In both cases the territory is filled with delightful oddballs.

Justified isn't quite in the league of Deadwood very little is but it pulls off that same tricky balancing act of mixing tense drama and low-key comedy, often in the same scene. No wonder: Justified is based on stories by Elmore Leonard, who also inspired the movies Get Shorty and Out of Sight and on TV, such snappy, short-lived series as Karen Sisco and Maximum Bob.

Every TV lawman who's as much of a loose cannon as Raylen has a boss whose job is to try to rein him in. Usually, they're written and played as either hyper-tense shouters or anguished mumblers. But Nick Searcy, as Raylen's old friend and new captain, has a different approach: sarcasm. Here he is in episode two, confronting Raylen about yet another shooting that, to borrow from the shows title, Raylen claims is justified.

Mr. NICK SEARCY (actor): (as Art Mullen) Oh, Raylen. Just a second, shut that door. I got a call this morning from AUSA David Vasquez. Wants to talk to you about your shooting Boyd Crowd(ph).

Mr. TIMOTHY OLYPHANT (actor): (as Raylen Givens) Whats there to talk about? He pulled first, there was a witness.

Mr. SEARCY: (as Art Mullen) But you see, 10 days ago you shot a man in Miami. Put it like this, if you was in the first grade and you bit somebody every week, theyd start to think of you as a biter. He also wants Avery to come up to Lexington to talk about it.

Mr. OLYPHANT: (as Raylen Givens) Fine with me.

Mr. SEARCY: (as Art Mullen) Which part? The part about her talking to Vasquez or the part about her coming up to Lexington? Raylen, you cant sleep with her.

Mr. OLYPHANT: (as Raylen Givens) I know.

Mr. SEARCY: (as Art Mullen) Raylen...

Mr. OLYPHANT: (as Raylen Givens) I wont. You starting to regret me coming here?

Mr. SEARCY: (as Art Mullen) Not yet.

BIANCULLI: I dont think hell regret it for a long, long time. Eight years ago, the FX network made its reputation with The Shield, and one of that show's key players, Walton Goggins, is featured in Justified, too. In The Shield he played Shane. Here he plays an old friend of Raylen's who has wound up on the other side of the law but who, like Raylen, hasn't lost any of his swagger or his sense of humor. They're lots of fun to watch and, in no small part because of them, so is Justified.

GROSS: David Bianculli writes TVworthWatching.com and teaches TV and film at Rowan University. His new book is Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, npr.freshair.org and you can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @ nprfreshair.

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