Late on Wednesday nights, I face a Luther vs. Justified playback dilemma. Until this personal scheduling clash arose, I would have said that I loved both cop shows and that, though very different, both were top of the crime genre. Both feature charismatic mavericks, the eponymous Luther, a gruff Londoner, played by convincingly gritty Idris Elba, and the quietly spoken, dead-eye Deputy Marshall Raylan Givens, portrayed disarmingly by long, tall Timothy Olyphant. Both have had time to develop over several series.
I reverted to childhood during the first episode of the new Luther, covering my eyes and cowering as a perverse serial killer lurked under hapless women’s beds or hid in their attics ready to pounce. I loved how real Elba looked and sounded as a cynical, middle-aged copper in the devious world of the Met. Next up was Justified and I revelled in the quirky cast of sharp-shooting misfits who populate the Kentucky backwoods. I almost emailed TV Licensing offering to pay double.
But the following week I watched Justified first and suddenly Luther seemed clichéd and dull, the dialogue leaden and clunky. Women in Luther, when they were not being terrorised or murdered in time-honoured fashion, were either irritating or unconvincing in particular Luther’s silly new love interest (I can’t wait for her to meet a serial killer on a dark night and give Luther something else to be gloomy about). And why does every British cop show feature a young black woman in a very senior post when we all know the British Police can only wheel out the improbably named Assistant Commissioner Cressida Dick and a couple of blondes on Crimewatch who shuffle papers around?
Justified on the other hand has original plot scenarios, sub-text laden dialogue that trips along full of dark humour, and three-dimensional, totally real female characters from the pragmatic mariticide Ava Crowder to tough, toting black Deputy Marshall Rachel Brooks (not to mention ganja-growing, moonshine-making matriarch Mags Bennett who dominated series two). Still what did I expect when Elmore Leonard, doyen of dialogue and criminal creations, is Justified’s executive produce? No one can beat Elmore Leonard on ‘voice’ or uniquely crazy but credible characters. Harlan County positively heaves with the latter and Bible-bashing, white supremacist bank-robber Boyd Crowder played by Walton Goggins (I can’t decide which name is more fitting for a philosophical hill-billy miscreant) tops the pile.
Raylan and Boyd, cop and robber, were first teamed up in the short story Fire in the Hole which ended in Boyd taking a bullet from Raylan’s ever-ready 45. The childhood neighbours, who once mined coal together, are opposite sides of the same coin and, with Boyd raised from the dead for the purposes of the TV series, their kinship, conflict and rivalry create a fascinating inter-play. This is more than a bog-standard police procedural with black and white goodies and baddies or even the fuzzy grey dirty cops and disloyal dealings of Luther. I am much more familiar with south-east London than the Kentucky mining-belt so maybe the home-grown product fails to spark my imagination but I know which box set I’m buying for a long night in. I even like Justified’s blue-grass, hip-hop Gangstagrass theme tune, like everything else about the series, it’s just perfect…
Sing-a-long-a-Gangstagrass …Long Hard Times to Come