Yes, like so many other beloved TV shows of yore, “Justified” has returned. With its original star, Timothy Olyphant, an Elmore Leonard story at its heart and a new cast of mostly corrupt characters, “Justified: City Primeval” attempts to bring back the spark of the original series a decade or so later in a new setting, as Raylan has taken his swagger from Kentucky to Detroit.
Based on Leonard’s novel “City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit” (with narrative adjustments to make Raylan the protagonist), “Primeval” puts him on a collision course with the Motor City, this time with a teen daughter in tow. After he literally runs into a pair of Michigan fugitives in Florida, Raylan winds up in Detroit to help investigate the attempted murder of a judge and related conspiracies in a city that has its own web of corruption, deal-making and criminal networks. Reluctantly pulled in, Raylan clashes with powerful defense attorney Carolyn Wilder (Ellis) as he attempts to parent his teenage daughter Willa (Vivian Olyphant, Timothy’s daughter), a wild child with a hankering for Harlan County, Raylan’s hometown and the original “Justified” setting.
Something is lost in the move from Kentucky to Detroit. There is less of a defined sense of place, despite great effort by the creators to establish Detroit as its own frontier of corruption and lawlessness. It feels as though it could be any vaguely metropolitan area, rather than a specific city with its own idiosyncrasies.
Givens is a bit of a fish out of water in these surroundings, which mostly provide an excuse for wry dialogue, such as someone warning him that his presence in a predominantly Black neighborhood “can be hazardous to your caucasity.”
In keeping with the bluesy tone of the original Elmore Leonard stories, “City Primeval” creates a solid roster of supporting players, which in addition to those mentioned include Clement’s girlfriend (Rectify’s” Adelaide Clemens) and an associate (Vondie Curtis-Hall), fueled by the fact Clement is a powder keg who can go off at any time.
Granted, things become a little unnecessarily messy down the stretch, with what amounts to a three-way game of cats and mice involving the cops, the bad guy and more really, really bad guys (Albanian mobsters, drawn into the fray thanks to Clement’s excesses).
Some answers are just about business. A media company has intellectual property it wants to exploit. Stars of the show are willing to return for one more payday. Fans have bought enough ancillary products to show there’s a market.
But there’s only one answer that leads to a great series: Someone has found an amazing new story which must be told with these popular characters. And, for me, Justifed: City Primeval, good as it is in spots, just doesn’t quite reach that pinnacle.
City Primeval makes a few odd choices for a revival. For most of the episodes, there is only one character from the original series in the new story (I don’t count Givens’ daughter, who was a baby in the original series and is a teen played by Olyphant’s real-life daughter in the revival). He’s chasing around a charismatic killer in Detroit, where Raylan’s “old soul in the modern age” vibe doesn’t wear as well.
And the issues we see Givens weighing in the revival are the same ones he navigated in the previous series – his drive to take on psychopathic lawbreakers and the toll it takes on him and those who love him. It makes for a passable enough drama for those jonesing to see Givens in action again. But for those of us who remember the original series’ sharp wit and eye for compelling, original characters the question surfaces again: Why are we seeing this now?
“Justified” is a superb show that I have long loved − I consider it one of the best shows of the 2010s. But in many ways it feels like a relic of that era, when TV lionized antihero lawmen who abided by their own sense of justice. Yes, in many ways Raylan has to adapt to a changed world − he does not, for instance, get away with taking two suspects in custody along for a ride to his daughter’s summer camp − but it’s impossible not to feel like the series is too dated for 2023. The series is too full of old sensibilities about cops and robbers, about the justice system and about a lawman’s place in the world. Olyphant may not look like he’s aged much, but the story around him has.
Maternal ship’s doctor Beverly Crusher came back as a butt-kicking, altruistic action hero with a secret past she’d hidden from her former flame, a wizened Admiral Jean-Luc Picard. Stalwart second-in-command Will Riker was a captain struggling to reconnect with his own family. Formerly blind engineer Geordi La Forge, now outfitted with awesome artificial eyes, was a parent himself. The new threat facing the galaxy was bound up in their shared history, but also revealed new depths to the characters that fans loved.
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