Two good shows about law enforcement, aka shows about people shooting guns, premiered last night: FX's excellent Elmore Leonard-inspired Justified and TNT's TV-verite Southland. Both are smart, solid entertainments that you should watch. Trouble is, they're on at the same time.
Now, obviously, we live in the future (it's 1998, right?) so there is technology like "DVR" and "On Demand" that could potentially allow us to watch both of these shows, one or both a bit time delayed or on the computer or whatever. But let's just pretend, say, that you're in a hotel room — there's a big sales meeting in Ashtabula so you're at the Holiday Inn Express, eating a Subway sandwich while sitting on the edge of the bed, quietly wishing that Jeannie from marketing or VP Bill will knock on your door and you two can finally make this thing happen, but in the meantime you might as well watch something — and hotel rooms don't have DVR and it's a Tuesday night at 10pm so you have to decide. Should you watch Justified or watch Southland?
Well if you want something a little folksier, perhaps a little more cinematic, then you should go for Justified (now in its third season), about a smooth-operating modern cowboy US Marshall played with sexy pigeon-toed strut by the invaluable Timothy Olyphant. Taking place in both the cities of Kentucky — Lexington, Frankfurt — and the mountain hollers, the show introduces us to a vibrant host of characters, from Dixie Mafiosos to ferocious moonshiners. This season we're dealing with a new villain, a mobster over from Detroit played by Neal McDonough, that steely blue-eyed actor who can be ethereal and menacing in equal measure. He's got a great, sniveling, unwilling underling in Jere Burns' local organized crime runner and, if only for last night's episode maybe, Dexter's Desmond Harrington as an Anton Chigurh-esque game-playing hatchet man. And, of course, there's Walton Goggins' Boyd Crowder, as always after his own villain-with-a-heart-of-gold agenda. It's a fun, not-too-light/not-too-heavy set of stakes, with a rich cast of characters played by good, smart actors. Fans of Elmore Leonard will recognize and appreciate the snappy verbal pas de deux that are hallmarks of his masterful crime writing. Justified isn't exactly aiming for complete realism — everyone's just a little too clever or colorful — but it comes close enough to feel both exotically exciting and oddly familiar.
If you want something that's going for a lot more of a documentary feel then Southland (on its fourth season), about the gritty days of L.A. beat cops, might be more to your liking. Also boasting a strong company of actors — among them Regina King, Ben McKenzie, Michael Cudlitz, and Shawn Hatosy — Southland, like Justified, feels like carefully crafted, deliberate work done by smart people, and that's always appreciated on television, especially in a genre as fattened and well-worn as the cop show. Season four special guest star Lucy Liu is a welcome addition; it can be easy to forget in light of all her recent butt-kicking roles that she can also be quite nimble with dialogue; she blends in seamlessly with the show's shaky-cam, day-in-the-life natural aesthetic. Even when, yes, the show goes a little too big. Last night's premiere, simply titled "Wednesday," followed two squad cars as they roamed their beats and, boy if what happened was actually a typical L.A. police officer's Wednesday, the turnover rate at the LAPD would probably be a lot higher than it is. There were several chases, two of which ended in gory death, an attempted suicide in a warehouse, and a big, violent shootout in a police station. That's quite a day! Meanwhile Regina King was dealing with a protected witness who refused to stay protected, another situation that ended grimly and dramatically. So yeah, it's sometimes hard to believe that Southland is like looking at documentary footage of actual L.A. cops' daily lives, but it feels real enough to be engaging in that you-are-there kind of way, while also entertaining enough to sustain itself as a primetime TV show. It's not arch like Justified, it's a more serious and earnest endeavor, but it often goes toe-to-toe with it in degree of execution.
So those are your choices! Well, plus everything else on the hotel TV that night. Choose wisely. Though, really, let's be honest: Neither Jeannie nor Bill are going to show up, just admit it, so it'll probably be a drink from the minibar, pay-per-view kind of evening for you. But if you're feeling pious enough to avoid that depressing hotel room routine, these are two fine options. Keep them in mind.