'Justified' Falters -- More Proof That Making Quality TV Is Hard

Despite an underwhelming season, the perennially strong series gets a pass based on its history, but not all shows are so lucky -- or have earned the chance at redemption.
David Strick

As the world of television gets better, and thus harder, one of the elements that I’m forever interested in and believe merits constant monitoring is when unmet expectations create abandonment issues: when viewers go one way because their shows go another and what’s left are an uncoupled pair of train cars.

One just sits there, dead on the tracks. The other grows smaller in the distance as it moves along.

Now, Justified's fifth season ended Tuesday night, and it’s not like I’m heading back north, leaving it to rot in the heat in Harlan. But that was not its best season and could be, all things considered, its weakest. But Justified will keep its season pass and my attention/affection because it has earned that over a number of seasons. Other shows aren’t as fortunate, because they stumble in their freshman season or they produce two poor seasons back-to-back and force the aforementioned uncoupling. It happens. It just proves yet again that good television is hard to make.

STORY: Mary Steenburgen Joins Season 5 of 'Justified'

Tuesday’s fifth-season finale put in motion some storylines that could make the last season something special: Raylan and Boyd closing the books, the former abetted by Ava, which the latter does not suspect; Raylan moving back to Florida to perhaps find some happiness with Winona and their baby, etc.

But it was the getting there that didn’t work. Season five seemed like a stretch on all fronts. The whole Ava-in-prison thing didn’t work out at all. Worse, I just don’t buy the Ava-Boyd split and, in fact, can’t really fathom how or why that happened in the first place. I kept thinking that whatever hiccup they had would certainly be patched up in the next episode, but the writers kept building in estrangement that didn’t seem natural to either character.

Ava having to stand tall on her own is one thing, but to now be willing to help Raylan put Boyd away forever just doesn’t seem right. It just doesn’t add up, even if you go back and search for the why in all of it.

STORY: 'Justified' to End After Season 6

It didn’t help season five that Daryl Crowe Jr. was more annoying than dangerous as this year’s guest-starring antagonist, and the rest of the season seemed like a hodgepodge of storylines about Dewey, Mexico, Art trying to pin the Nicky murder on Raylan and thus having those two uncomfortably at odds, Wynn Duffy over here, more Crowes over there, Tim and Rachel watching from the sidelines as usual, and so on.

The dialogue was often great, which is a hallmark of the series, particularly anytime Boyd or Raylan had something to say (and said it to each other), but there was a feeling this season that the puppet strings were more visible than usual, characters were acting in ways they ordinarily wouldn’t and the tension meant to spark Daryl vs. Raylan failed to light any fires of interest.

All of this is to say that even very good television series have off seasons. In the case of Justified, that’s pretty rare, so I’ll be back for season six. But let this season be an example, or at least a reminder, that when series can be great from year to year without fail, something nearly miraculous is at work. It’s hard to keep an audience. It’s hard to be consistently great. It’s just hard, period, to be in the television business.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine