New City, Same Problems
Justified: City Primeval
Any time there's a sequel to, well, anything the first question that has to be asked is, "did we need this?" Now, there are plenty of sequels that never manage a good answer to that question, unless the answer is, "yes, to prove we never need another one again." Think the Police Academy sequels, or Airplane II: The Sequel, which were sequels that might have been anticipated at the time but quickly proved we did not, in fact, need the continuations provided. It's doubly the case that when a movie series or television show goes out on a high note, any urge to continue the franchise has to be questioned. Do we need more time with any of these characters? Sometimes yes, in the case of Frasier (the 1993 version, at least). Sometimes no, in the case of Joey.
For Justified, the urge to continue the franchise does feel rather weird. That series, which ended with a pretty damn great sixth season which was designed to tie up all the loose ends, felt complete. Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) caught his "white whale", Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), and sailed off back to Miami to be a father. We knew all we needed and the story wrapped up. So why, after eight years, are we coming back to revisit the character? Is it because there was some great story that only Raylan could be a part of?
After watching the mini-series (or, seventh season, if you prefer), Justified: City Primeval, it's hard to say that we really needed to bring back Raylan Givens for this. Don't get me wrong, Olyphant is great as the Deputy U.S. Marshall, and the actor easily slips back into the role that is his most iconic. But the story of City Primeval (which is based on the Elmore LeonardAn American novelist and screeenwriter you started writing Westerns before moving on to a successful, and very long, career writing crime fiction and comedies. novel City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit) doesn't really do enough to justify (heh) Raylan's inclusion in this story. This feels like someone at FX snatched up the rights to the Elmore Leonard novel, realized they had a bankable name with Justified, and slapped the two together to get ratings. It just... doesn't quite work.
In the series, Raylan is taking his daughter, Willa (Vivian Olyphant), to a camp (after she got into a fight and broke another kid's nose), when a couple of random criminals try to rob him of his car. It goes about as well as you'd expect for the criminals, but it does delay Raylan in getting Willa to the camp, and she's not admitted. Thus, his daughter comes along with him for a ride up to Detroit so he can take these couple of criminals in for arraignment. While he's there, though, the presiding judge on that case end up getting killed and suddenly Raylan has to stay in Detroit to deal with a federal man hunt all for a killer they realize is right in front of them: Clement Mansell (Boyd Holbrook).
Mansell is a real piece of work. Put up for murder previously in Detroit, he was released on a technicality. Now he's back, getting up to his old misdeeds in his old haunts. He's the one that kills the judge, and he steals from the body a book of names, everyone the judge had been blackmailing over the years. With that book, Mansell could make a lot of money, so he teams up with an old partner, Marcus "Sweety" Sweeton (Vondie Curtis-Hall), for one last score before they all flee town. But with Raylan on his tail its only a matter of time before a showdown (or two, or three) occurs.
The original source novel, City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit, is a novel focused on two characters: Mansell, of course, and Homicide Detective Raymond Cruz. Their back and forth, over the previous case and the current one, is what gives the novel its dramatic weight. Cruz was a recurring character for Leonard, not unlike Raylan, so having him working a case like this in a city that was his established hunting grounds, made sense. Swapping Raylan in for Cruz (even though Cruz does make a cameo, played by Paul Calderon, reprising his role from Out of Sight) does not. Detroit is not Raylan's stomping ground. Mansell was not a previous case of him. Raylan is so disconnected from the story it feels like he was grafted on for no reason which, well, is pretty much the case.
Again, Olyphant is great in his role as Raylan and it's fun having him back. He can make this material work about as well as possible considering but there's simply no way to cover for the fact that Raylan simply doesn't belong here. He has no connection to Mansell which leaves Mansell flat and uninteresting since this is, well, the Raylan Givens show. He needs a villain he can connect with, like him and Boyd from the previous seasons. He circles Mansell but the two of them have little reason to meet and connect in any way, leaving all their scenes together feeling contrived. This is just another criminal for Raylan, not someone he can care about.
Bear in mind that every villain Raylan went up against in the previous seasons of Justified had some kind of connection to Raylan. They were figures in his community, people he used to know, fiends he battled in Kentucky or Florida. Every time some new bad guy showed up, their relationship to Raylan felt lived in. He could connect because, in a way, he spoke hillbilly with them. The king of those connections, of course, was Boyd, a character introduced as a one-time friend of Raylan's, and the instant chemistry between the two drove the series.
The issue with Mansell is that he doesn't have that same kind of instant connection. Some of the issue may be with Boyd Holbrook who isn't a bad actor, per se, but his performance as Mansell is very one note. There aren't any shades to the character, no fun bluster on top of deep darkness. Mansell has just one mode, off-putting killer, and that's the only character trait we ever see. It's the kind of character Raylan instantly sizes up and then dismisses because he's above him in every way. One look and he knows who Mansell is and, more important, that the character will die at the end of his gun. He's a case-of-the-week villain for Raylan who has been given a full ten episodes to flounder around before he meets his bullet.
Also working against the series, frankly, is Willa. I know the series has always felt a need to give Raylan family matters to deal with, primarily from his ex-wife, Winona (Natalie Zea), and they're using Willa in the same kind of place as Winona. The issue is, though, that the series has nothing new to say on the matter. Raylan is dedicated to his job and won't give it up for anything... until he does. But he already did that beat in the main series and having him go through the same material with his daughter here in City Primeval doesn't tell us anything new about the character at all. If anything, it gives us less since we're seeing stale material we already know.
And much as Olyphant was clearly enjoying being able to act opposite is actual daughter, I've got to be honest, she's not that great here. She may very well have potential (this is one of her first big acting roles) but it's hard to see it here so far. Her performance is one-note, with her playing the petulant teen the whole time. Maybe if she had more to do in the show beyond sit around and wait for Raylan (which is exactly what Winona did most of the time) they her performance, and her character, could have grown. But it's pretty clear even the show didn't care much for her as she's ejected halfway into the series (despite how much her inclusion was hyped in pre-release materials), adding nothing to the overall series.
In fact, the series doesn't really find its true Justified energy until the last few scenes when a familiar face shows up to promise some kind grand adventure to be had. That, in a way makes this mini-series feel like ten episode of padding before the real revival happens. And if they just wanted to have Raylan get back to his old haunts and chase people he knew they could have led with that and skipped all of this Detroit stuff. That might have been more interesting than what we actually go, all things considered.
It's not that Justified: City Primeval is a bad show -- it's perfect fine watching, comparable to a lesser season of the main series which still makes it fairly watchable -- it's just that it doesn't do much to really justify (there it is again) it's own existence. It's here to remind us Justified exists and to promise that, soon, we'll get the story we actually want. This is the filler before the main course and you have to realize that before going in. Then, maybe, you can enjoy this season for what it is before moving on to something more substantial and far better.