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Television Review

In ‘Justified,’ a growing crime world

US marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) must reckon with crime families in backwoods Kentucky in “Justified.’’ US marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) must reckon with crime families in backwoods Kentucky in “Justified.’’ (Prashant Gupta/FX)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / February 9, 2011

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When you think “crime family,’’ you probably envision bad guys playing cards, chewing toothpicks, and carrying a few extra rolls of fat. But I’m here to write about — and sing the praises of — FX’s “Justified,’’ a winning crime drama that brings its own unique spirit to everything it touches. On “Justified,’’ which is set in backwoods Kentucky and based on characters created by executive producer Elmore Leonard, the crime families are far skeevier — a lot more “Deliverance’’ than “The Sopranos.’’

In the season 2 premiere, tonight at 10, the “Justified’’ writers quickly wrap up the story of the nasty Crowder clan that dominated last year, and they introduce a fabulously distorted new Harlan County family called the Bennetts. Indeed, if you missed last season, jump in around the 15-minute mark tonight, when the show moves forward in earnest to some extremely promising new territory. Walton Goggins’s Boyd Crowder is still on the scene, but the marijuana-growing Bennetts are the new creeps that US marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) must reckon with.

Mags Bennett is the cross-wearing matriarch, a lady who’ll lie to your face and kill your father if she has to, to keep her business going. In a brilliant casting choice, Mags is played by Margo Martindale (“Dexter,’’ “The Riches’’), an actress whose trademark is her deeply loving, trustworthy face. The irony is consistently amusing. Mags has three rotten sons, including a crooked cop and an emaciated varmint played by Jeremy Davies, who was Daniel Faraday on “Lost.’’ Here, he’s a rascal with a menacing smirk. On one level, the Bennetts seem like comic relief, the marijuana to the Crowder’s meth — but wait, they’re as lethal as the Crowders, and just as ugly.

Whoa. I’ve gotten this far without writing about Olyphant, who has found the perfect role as Raylan. It’s hard to imagine any other actor in the part, as Olyphant milks Raylan’s smooth, laconic cowboy style for as much wry humor as he can. He is riveting without a lot of noise — both his body language and his conversation are pared down, and yet his presence is always resonant. This season, Raylan is in Kentucky because he wants to be, and he is as confident as ever — but his romantic life continues to stumble, as he and his ex-wife, Winona (Natalie Zea) try to figure out their future. When Raylan takes off his guns, he loses his self-control and his aim.

The first season of “Justified’’ was excellent, especially after a few bumps in quality in the earlier episodes. And based on the first three episodes, I’m thinking season 2 is going to be even better and certainly more consistent. As the population of the show expands, and as Raylan runs down his childhood demons and adult foes, “Justified’’ keeps on justifying — and demanding — our viewership.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

JUSTIFIED

Starring: Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins, Natalie Zea

On: FX

Time: Tonight, 10-11