Harlan County, U.S.A.: My Love-Hate Relationship with Raylan Givens

via F/X Network.
Not long ago, I was emailing with a friend from Chicago when she asked my opinion of the F/X show Justified.  Specifically, she asked whether it was an accurate depiction of life in an Eastern Kentucky coal camp town.  Bless her heart, she wasn't in for the very long-winded tirade that I've spent two television seasons developing. The bitchy answer I sometimes provide to that question is that Matt and Trey did a far more accurate job portraying Southeastern Kentucky when Cartman traveled to Corbin to meet Colonel Sanders.  The longer, kinder answer is that few television shows have left me with a more conflicted set of emotions than Justified.  It's a fun show.  It's a well-done, old-school Western.  But it drives me utterly insane.
via Times-Tribune.

In case you aren't familiar, Justified is the story of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, played by the always-handsome and awesomely-named Timothy Olyphant.  For some reason or another, Raylan gets in trouble at work and is punished through a reassignment that stations him in the Kentucky hometown he's tried to escape.  He's now based in the Lexington U.S. Marshal's office, and has been sent to clean up his hometown, Harlan.  The show is based on Elmore Leonard's novels Pronto and Riding the Rap, and the short story Fire in the Hole.

via Amazon.
Now, in my opinion, Elmore Leonard is outright fantastic at what he does, despite some of the memorable theatrical flops adapted from his work (The Big Bounce, anyone?).  He basically owns pulp fiction as we know it.  His dialogue is accessible and engaging.  He lands the reader squarely in the story's plot with little exposition needed.  But, Elmore Leonard is from Detroit.  He quite famously uses a researcher for information on his settings.  I've read that he chose Harlan County, a place he'd never visited, because it seemed an unspoiled, old-fashioned place to set a classic Western.  Both Pronto and Riding the Rap are set in Miami, with reference to Raylan's Kentucky roots, while Fire in the Hole moves the lawman back to Harlan, where he takes on the Klan.  Leonard's celebrated knack for dialogue establishes a tough and thoroughly likeable Raylan, while the descriptions of Cincinnati, Jellico Mountain and Harlan itself sound very much the way a native would describe them.

Justified developer Graham Yost does not create as seamless a portal into Harlan County.  I often find myself in the room when my beau or my daddy are watching the show, and I have to leave before I threaten to shoot the screen, Elvis-style.  Something about the fact that they're always taking "Tates Creek Pike" to travel from Lexington to Harlan just drives me nuts.  As does the fact that everyone on the show talks like Dwight Yoakam (who, despite his Kentucky roots, has spent way more time in Detroit and Bakersfield than in Betsy Layne).  I had a similar reaction to Cameron Crowe's cringe-worthy Elizabethtown, but that's another story.

via F/X.
God bless 'em, Justified tries real hard.  They have the right product placements -- there's Ale-8 and Kentucky AleThey're working to make the police uniforms more realistic.  They even cast my very favorite Kentucky-born actress -- my Transylvania classmate Mandy McMillian-- as a local lawyer.  But, I still find myself saying "It's not like that."  I'm always reminded of the way that Family Ties' Mallory shopped at Lazarus as a nod to the Keatons' Ohio locale.  And, I'm left scratching my head when Steve Brady plays a brash mobster "hiding out" in Harlan.

Maybe it's because I have several friends who work in the actual Federal Courthouse where Raylan's office is fictionally located.   Maybe it's because my great-aunt and uncle lived in Harlan County for years (which, mad props to Leonard for referencing the Evarts community in the story).  Maybe I'm just too much of a control freak to treat the show as a fictional account. Still, I find myself jarred by the weird juxtapositions every time I watch that show.  It just doesn't seem like home.