'Justified' plays the prison blues: Why going to jail makes for dull TV

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Image Credit: Prashant Gupta/FX

The dirty devils of Harlan County’s underworld hollers are always going to jail, and that’s not always a good thing for lawman Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and Justified. Over the course of its four seasons, the FX drama has routinely sent its winning corps of low-life losers to the clink, including its most magnetic menace, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), as well as weedy gimp Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies) and Raylan’s bad daddy Arlo (Raymond Barry), who met his final fate there. Every time the show sends its troublemakers to the big house, I start counting the minutes until the story sets them free, because after all, they’re the ones who make the conflicts we most want to see.

The new season of Justified, which began last week, is off to a tepid start, and part of the reason why is the show’s latest example of caged heat-death. Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter) hasn’t always been a prime mover of plot, but parking her in prison is causing other parts of the show to putter or stall. Her beau Boyd has many problems, including a romantic mission to bust his true love out of the joint. His quest produced the premiere’s most viscerally satisfying scene – a sinister beat-down of malevolent moneybags Lee Paxton (Sam Anderson, very effective) – but good moments don’t make great episodes, and they don’t always produce great storylines: In Tuesday’s installment, the ramifications of Boyd’s jailbird-inspired violence catalyzes a story arc  — which seems intent on running multiple episodes — that I don’t buy and already find tedious. By filling Boyd’s time with Free Ava runaround (among other bits of busy work, including this ho-hum of securing a new drug supplier), Justified steers him clear, for now, from Raylan, his best sparring partner, who in turn is made to fill his time with modest affairs: Mooning over Winona (Natalie Zea); shooting holes in dimwitted Dewey Crowe’s (Damon Herriman) whorehouse swimming pool. (He gets a better story tonight with the return of Little Orphan Loretta, played by Kaitlyn Dever.)

It’s early days for Justified 4.0, so maybe the prison play will lead to meaningful payoff in the weeks to come. But it’s the rare show that can put a character in the lock-up without causing dramatic lockdown.* See: Arrested Development, which kept George Bluth (Jeffrey Tambor) on ice and isolated (in jail, in an attic, in the desert) for so much of its run, but had so much else going on, and had enough imagination to give George plenty of stuff to do and keep him relevant to everything else, that for the most part, it worked. On the other hand: The CW’s Arrow, which is currently having a strong season – so much is going on, and most of it engrossing — but the weakest move so far was keeping Moira Queen (Susanna Thompson) in prison for seven episodes, sad and clad in jumpsuit drab, our encounters with her limited to sit-downs in a spare visitation room. Jail is not only dramatically meh, but visually blah. Moira’s stint in the slammer ended with another cliché, the November sweeps trial, and natch, she was acquitted when she should have been found guilty, thanks to the deus ex machinations of another villain. That’s another reason why I don’t like it when TV goes pokey: It usually happens for very logical reasons, which flatters the intelligence of the storytelling, but the parole usually happens for the most contrived reasons, which just insults our intelligence.

*Obviously, I’m not counting prison-set dramas like Oz, Prison Break, and Orange Is the New Black.

When TV dances to the jailhouse anti-rock or any of its analogous moves – the Held Captive storyline; the Exile storyline; even the Amnesia storyline, in which the characters we love disappear into a black hole of psychic solitary — the audience is made to tap their feet with impatience, waiting for the inevitable, and so we (like the incarcerated or banished characters) are distanced from the drama, not engaged by it. See: the notoriously entropic first six episodes of Lost’s third season, which kept its big three players – Jack (Matthew Fox), Kate (Evangeline Lilly), Sawyer (Josh Holloway) – caged by The Others for what seemed like double the time. The storyline fed the worst fears of its audience – that Lost had no vision for the protracted second act that all ongoing serials with series-long character arcs must produce — and ironically mirrored the anxieties of the producers, who were lobbying the network to let them move into their third-act, series-concluding story. (I feel Justified – while still entertaining, and far from Hydra Station exasperating — is wrestling with endgame-wanting inertia too.) [UPDATE AT 4:05 PST 1/14/14: FX announced today that Justified will come to an end after next season. Good choice. The move will certainly change the way we look at the current season just now underway: Everything will feel more urgent, more poignant, even snoozy jailhouse storylines, now that we know we don’t have much time left with the characters. Those values shouldn’t be just self-generated out of sentiment and premature nostalgia, but earned by the drama. Hopefully the episodes to come will do that.]

More recently, Fox’s serial killer saga The Following launched with its chief antagonist Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) in the pen … then breaking out … then getting caught again by the end of the pilot. We had to wait six more episodes before Carroll did what we knew he would do, and could always do, which was escape. The thriller hoped intrigue would carry us through so many scenes of watching Purefoy dressed in prison-issue monochrome say cryptic stuff while handcuffed to a table. What’s Joe doing? What master plan is he hatching or enacting or both? It’s not a bad gamble – Purefoy is charismatic even when static, and cracking his code of character is part of the fun of this show — but the payoff was still so minimal. The second season doesn’t start with Carroll in jail — but he might as well be. It finds him in exile, distanced from the drama. Again. And so we are made to twiddle anew. Come out and play with us, Joe! And soon. Or we won’t be following for much longer.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

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