Justified - Rogue male who's calling all the shots

Justified, featuring a gun-toting cowboy cop with killer charm, is the latest critically acclaimed hit to arrive here from America. Macho, no-nonsense heroes are all the rage this season, says Sarah Hughes

Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens is the sort of man who never walks when he can mosey, who makes his battered Stetson look like this year's must-have accessory and who has a nice line in laconic put-downs. He's also the coolest character on television right now.

Givens, played with just the right air of rakish appeal by Timothy Olyphant aka Deadwood's upright Sheriff Seth Bullock, is the star of Justified, which comes to FiveUSA this month. A freewheeling adaptation of Elmore Leonard's equally freewheeling stories about Givens, Justified, which began on US cable channel FX in March, has been credited with reviving that channel's fortunes giving it the highest ratings since dark police drama The Shield made its debut in 2002.

The show's appeal to male viewers in particular is easy to understand. In an era when many television networks are obsessively chasing a female audience with new shows such as Cougar Town and The Good Wife, Justified harks back to an older time, to the era of Seventies and Eighties cop shows when the key to being a good detective was the ability to wander through life with a quip on your tongue and a gun in your hand.

Small wonder then that male critics in particular have been falling over themselves to praise the drama. Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker admitted that after watching an early scene in which Givens jokes with a suspect before punching him, "I knew from this moment that I'd kinda fallen in love with a new TV show", while Time's James Poniewozik went further admitting to "a thorough man crush" on the character.

Those plaudits were largely deserved. From the crisp dialogue to Olyphant's laidback central performance, there's an ease about Justified, which sets it apart from most of the rest of the shows on television right now. We know that Givens has demons – his ex-wife calls him "the angriest man I have ever known" – but, in contrast to other cop shows from The Shield to The Wire, those demons aren't on full display. Indeed, one of the most fascinating things about Justified's first few episodes is this disconnect between Givens's willingness to use his gun and the easy-going charm which he uses to camouflage a killer's ruthlessness.

The show's success can also be attributed to the fact that it is in many ways more Western than police procedural. Justified's Kentucky might be a modern-day mix of crystal meth addicts and white supremacists, of shuttered houses and increasing unemployment but despite these new problems there is still a sense of the Old West running through the series with Givens, in particular, more old-school sheriff than modern-day cop. As The Chicago Tribune's television critic Maureen Ryan wrote: "It's safe to say that Givens will never stare into a microscope or (please God) hunt a serial killer."

Instead, part of the appeal of Givens's weekly encounters is the way in which the deputy marshal has to struggle with the knowledge that many of the criminals he chases have a charm not dissimilar to his own. There's a bit of rogue in all of us, the show seems to say, but the difference between Givens and those he hunts is that he has a moral code. Not for him the cut corners of The Shield's terrifying Vic Mackey or even the blurred lines of The Wire's obsessive Jimmy McNulty, Givens is a lawman in the old-fashioned sense, a man of few words and clear actions. As he himself says early in the first episode: "Let's just keep it simple, huh? He pulled first. I shot him."

And keeping it simple is another key to Justified's success. After a decade of dark, brooding dramas populated by morally grey, often entirely dislikeable characters, Justified's easy charm harks back to a less complicated era for television when men were men, even if they did sometimes wear loud Hawaiian shirts or dodgy slacks as they solved crimes.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Olyphant obliquely acknowledged this point, saying that if Givens watched TV his favourite character would probably be Tom Selleck's famously laidback Thomas Magnum. "I bet you Raylan would sit back and watch a little Magnum P.I. and think that guy's got it made,' he said. "He's his own boss. He drives a Ferrari. He has a moustache. If he just wore a hat?"

For all that Olyphant was joking when he made the comparison, it's true that the two shows share a certain sensibility. While Justified is a considerably darker drama and Givens both more conflicted and more trigger-happy then the beer-swigging, skirt-chasing Magnum, both shows celebrate a certain type of relaxed yet macho charisma. Indeed, it's arguable that not since Magnum's heyday has a television hero made cool look so effortless, transforming it into a state of being that can overcome bad shirts and cheesy facial hair in Magnum's case, and poor hat choices in Givens's.

It's a type of cool that can turn a show into a breakout hit, which is why Justified's creators are not alone in looking to the past for inspiration this season. A quick look at the upcoming pilots for the new US season shows something of a move back towards those effortlessly entertaining, male-dominated hits of the late Seventies and early Eighties.

Thus, NBC is remaking the classic detective series, The Rockford Files, with Dermot Mulroney stepping into James Garner's hard-to-follow shoes and a script by House creator David Shore. Not to be outdone CBS's big show for the new season is a remake of Hawaii 5-0 with a cast that includes Lost's Daniel Dae Kim and Alex O'Loughlin as Steve McGarrett and Selleck himself may be returning to our screens thanks to another CBS pilot, Reagan's Law, which follows the public and private lives of a family of New York cops.

Meanwhile, Fox's likeable comic book adaptation, Human Target, which comes to the Sci-Fi channel on 14 April, has already signalled a move away from over-complicated self-mythologising shows such as Lost and back towards more light-hearted fare. "It reminds me of The A-Team in feel," the show's star Mark Valley admitted of the series in which his character Christopher Chance saves a new damsel in distress each week, making free with the quips and stunts as he does it. "I think there's a similar sort of relationship between our main characters, a sense that these are guys you'd like to spend some time hanging with."

And that is the ultimate appeal of shows such as Justified and Human Target: they have an amiability that has been largely lacking from our television screens of late. In recent years, it seems as though we have spent all our time watching earnest CSI agents stare gloomily down microscopes or sat through episode after episode of generation-defining television, which really served only to depress us still further.

Much of that television from The Sopranos to Our Friends in the North, from Mad Men and The Wire to The Street and State of Play was gripping, involving and brilliant but it's also true that sometimes you just want to come home, kick off your shoes, pour yourself a large drink, switch on the television and watch a man with a slow drawl, a big gun and an abundance of charm to spare.

'Justified' is broadcast on FiveUSA later this month. 'Human Target' starts on Sci-Fi on 14 April at 10pm

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