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‘Justified: City Primeval’ review: Timothy Olyphant makes a satisfying return as Raylan Givens

In a blue shirt and a cowboy hat, Raylan Givens sits at a table with water glasses.
Timothy Olyphant is back as Raylan Givens in “Justified: City Primeval” on FX.
(Chuck Hodes/FX)
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Welcome back to television, Raylan Givens. Given that it is in a hero’s nature to return, and the medium’s to encourage that when it seems profitable, the appearance of “Justified: City Primeval,” Tuesday on FX — eight years after Timothy Olyphant hung up his Stetson as the star of the original series, developed by Graham Yost from an Elmore Leonard short story — feels, if not inevitable … well, I’m going to say it: justified.

Raylan, a U.S. marshal, has been inserted here into the 1980 Leonard novel “City Primeval,” whose main detective, Raymond Cruz (Paul Calderon), is compensated with a cameo. As we begin, Raylan, who spent the original series in the Appalachian Mountains of east Kentucky and has been working in Miami and living the life of a divorced dad in the interim, is driving his 15-year-old daughter, Willa — played by Olyphant’s own talented daughter, Vivian Olyphant — to camp, much to her displeasure. (We last saw father and daughter eating ice cream, and ice cream is in the picture as we meet them again.)

But an encounter on the road with a couple of hooligans leads instead to a courtroom in Detroit, where Raylan gives testimony and Willa is chastised by tetchy Judge Alvin Guy (Keith David, sonorous as always) for laughing at cat videos on her phone. When that judge narrowly avoids assassination, Raylan is impressed into service by the Detroit PD, to his own and Willa’s now doubled displeasure. (She’s stuck in a Detroit hotel with orders from her father to stay put, but as a willful, bored teenager with no radar for danger, that isn’t going to happen.)

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A man and his daughter sit with food on their plates in a dark dining room. She is looking at her phone.
Vivian Olyphant, right, who is Timothy Olyphant’s daughter, plays Raylan’s daugther, Willa, in the series.
(Chuck Hodes/FX)

What promises to be simple — or what Raylan was promised would be simple — spins off into complications that take eight episodes to resolve, involving Albanian mobsters; better and worse police officers (Victor Williams, phlegmatic; Norbert Leo Butz, choleric); a bar-owning former bassist who once jammed with Miles Davis (Vondie Curtis-Hall as Sweetie); the primary villain (see below) and his blinkered junkie girlfriend (Adelaide Clemens as Sandy); and Carolyn Wilder (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, bringing depth to what amounts to a co-starring role), a criminal defense lawyer whose relations with Raylan grow from antagonistic to something you’re just going to have to watch and see. Vivid supporting characters, well-written and well-cast, were one of the great pleasures of “Justified,” and so it is with “City Primeval.”

One might easily call “City Primeval” the delayed seventh season of “Justified,” especially considering the number of old hands who are back to write and direct. The miniseries retains the series’ basic-cable lack of pretension, its humor, its promotion of conversation over action. It is perhaps a little darker and more violent than its predecessor, and there is the unprecedented glimpse of a dude’s naked butt — not Olyphant’s, though the actor gets his shirt off at least once, as if to demonstrate that time has no more eroded his physique than it has Michelangelo’s David. But there’s been no attempt to impose a novel style, to modernize — it’s only been eight years, but styles change fast — or to improve what needs no improving.

The setting may be new, but the ingredients are familiar, not merely from the series itself, but the genres it incorporates. It is diner food, perfectly executed, seasoned with flair, a dish steeped in memory you are happy to eat again. Not exactly comfort food, given how much of what happens is discomfiting, but deeply satisfying. Whatever mayhem goes on around him — and there is plenty of that — Raylan makes a viewer feel safe. He’s a rock in a roiling sea.

That isn’t to say he doesn’t get exasperated or angry, but Olyphant keeps him centered, grounded. (And exasperation is an attitude he plays well, often to comic effect.) The more terrifying a situation, the more settled and serene he’s liable to seem. The show is somehow stressful and relaxing at the same time.

There is nothing more compelling in a character than confidence and competence, and all the more so when that character comes without magical superpowers. Although he’s more or less continually a target, one never feels that Raylan is ever in danger himself, or that we are in danger of having to mourn him. At the same time, the fate of those around him remains an open question; and any show that makes a character out of a lawman’s child wants to make you sweat a little.

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A man in a blue floral shirt stands with a jacket in his hands.
Clement Mansell (Boyd Holbrook) gets the job done as the bad guy in “Justified: City Primeval.”
(Chuck Hodes/FX)

The bad guy here is Clement Mansell (Boyd Holbrook). To make him something more than a sociopathic killer, and more like sociopathic killers in movies and television shows, Clement has been given a few character quirks — whether by Leonard in the novel, or the screenwriters, I can’t say. He fancies himself a singer (we get renditions of the White Stripes’ ”We’re Going to Be Friends” and the Beach Boys’ ”Kokomo”); asks a man he has tied up in a chair, “Can you explain what Twitter is?”; and is fixated on a certain landscape painting by a certain painter for reasons that are not made clear. Mostly, he is a nut with a gun, and if the character is not as complex or original as Walton Goggins’ Boyd Crowder, or Margo Martindale’s Mags Bennett, or Mykelti Williamson‘s Ellstin Limehouse, he gets the job done.

Cast in a negative image of our hero, he’s long and tall, like Olyphant, and something of a cowboy, like Raylan. (His nickname is the Oklahoma Wild Man.) Accordingly, one might expect the action to lead to a classic showdown, minus only the dusty street, scattering townfolk and tumbling tumbleweed. (I’m not saying it happens, and I’m not saying it doesn’t, but the subtitle of Leonard’s novel is “High Noon in Detroit.”)

Indeed, it has been many times pointed out, “Justified” is a contemporary Western: It matters, then, that Raylan is a marshal, like Matt Dillon, or Wyatt Earp, or his television forebear Sam McCloud, and not a policeman, or a private detective. (Though there is a touch of Raymond Chandler’s knight-errant Philip Marlowe about him.) With his laconic style and gift for dry humor, a toothy smile and ironic glint in his eyes, Olyphant has the presence of an A-list Western star, something of John Wayne, James Stewart or, especially, Joel McCrea, but pitched to the long-form intimacy of the small screen.

Olyphant, 55, who has gone gray and added a few new creases to his mug, is substantially unchanged. (He seems, somehow, to have more hair.) Notwithstanding a disillusioned ex-detective’s remark, “You remind me of me, man, when I started out, except you’re old,” this is not a meditation on age — middle age, maybe, given the teenage daughter, but there’s nothing autumnal, or elegiac about “City Primeval.” And though the show has a thing or two to say about change, there is nothing especially final in its finale.

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