‘Justified: City Primeval’: Everything to know before you watch the FX revival

Few shows lend themselves to revivals naturally. “Justified,” the critically acclaimed FX drama starring Timothy Olyphant as Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, might not seem like a prime candidate to return after the Emmy-winning series nailed its series finale in 2015. But the show is coming back on July 18 for a limited eight-episode run under the title “Justified: City Primeval.” From a logistical standpoint, bringing back TV’s coolest lawman makes sense: “Justified,” which featured mostly stand-alone, season-long arcs during its excellent six-season run, is perfectly suited to one-off limited series. It’s also a beloved show that balances comedy and drama well, has the respect of many in Hollywood and understands the unique narrative value of place in a way that many series do not.

Whether “Justified: City Primeval” is able to recapture the magic of the original run is yet to be seen, but as our reunion with Raylan is upon us, here are 10 things you need to know about the new series before you watch.

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1. It’s based on another Elmore Leonard novel. The character of Raylan Givens first appeared in Leonard’s novels “Pronto” and “Riding the Rap.” He later appeared in the short story “Fire in the Hole,” which served as the basis for “Justified.” The revival is based on yet another Leonard work: the 1980 crime novel “City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit,” though the book does not feature Raylan. “We thought it would be cool to do this mashup of the character we knew and this book Elmore wrote,” co-showrunner Michael Dinner told TV Insider. The story, which is set in Detroit and follows dangerous criminal Clement Mansell, aka The Oklahoma Wildman (portrayed by Boyd Holbrook in the show), after he murders a circuit court judge, is being updated to include the character.

The show’s creative team — which reunites much of the team from the original series — was excited to explore Raylan as a stranger in a strange land after spending so many years in the familiar, crime-ridden hollers of Kentucky. “We weren’t trying to recapture the show that we did,” explained Dinner at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in January. “We were trying to recapture Elmore’s tone. This is a book that we really loved. We loved the characters in the book. We thought it would be interesting to pick up with Raylan and catapult him into this story and see him some years down the road. … What we’ve done is true to the show but not the same show.”

“Elmore Leonard and [original series showrunner] Graham Yost gave us so much material to launch what I always thought [were] potentially numerous stories,” added Olyphant, who also serves as an executive producer on the series.

2. Although the setting and characters are new, it’s still very much “Justified” in nature. “It’s an extension of the show in a kind of storytelling mode even though it’s Detroit,” said executive producer Sarah Timberman. “A hallmark of the original show was that you’d spin out into Margo Martindale and Kaitlyn Dever’s world and you’d just live there and just leave our regulars. And they became the regulars.” The revival does this as well, with characters played by Vondie Curtis-Hall, Aunjanue Ellis and Adelaide Clemens. “You really get into these other lives over these eight episodes, and it’s really fun to watch,” said Yost.

Curtis-Hall portrays Sweety, the owner of a local dive who has roots in the music industry — and a shaky past with Mansell. Ellis is the formidable Carolyn Wilder, a lawyer who crosses paths with Raylan early on when he testifies against one of her clients in the Motor City. She has deep ties to Sweety and also represents Mansell. Clemens, meanwhile, portrays Sandy Stanton, Mansell’s girlfriend who is a willing participant in his various crimes and schemes.

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3. Mansell isn’t like the villains we’ve seen before. From Mags to Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson) to Markham (Sam Elliott), “Justified’s” antagonists were memorable because they were all unique, layered individuals. They came with easily parsed motives, and we understood who they were and what they wanted but also how their circumstances played into that. Mansell is a different type of villain; much more of a wildcard, he has plans and desires but doesn’t necessarily care how he goes about reaching them. Meaning, if something else catches his eye — or perhaps, more accurately, pisses him off — he’ll take a detour and worry about the rest later. In a way, this makes him kind of predictable but also incredibly dangerous. And you cannot reason with a dangerous man who seemingly has little to lose.

4. It’s coming in July. “Justified: City Primeval” will premiere on Tuesday, July 18 at 10/9c on FX with two episodes. Subsequent episodes will air weekly. Episodes will be available the next day on Hulu. This summer run is a change from the original series’ traditional winter/spring slot. This programming decision could eventually have Emmy implications, as it will place the series in the early weeks of the 2023-24 Emmy cycle. This could present an issue because voters were never enamored with “Justified” during its original run; Olyphant and co-star Walton Goggins were each nominated just once during the series’ six seasons. With “Breaking Bad” ineligible, they were able to sneak in for their work in Season 2 in 2011 (neither won). However, it should be noted that is the same year Martindale took home the Emmy for Best Supporting Drama Actress for her turn as Mags Bennett. And for his work as Dickie Bennett in Season 3, Jeremy Davies took home a guest Emmy (he was also nominated for Season 2). So while it’s not impossible for the show to make a splash, airing so early in the Emmys cycle could present an issue for “City Primeval” because the revival cannot bank on nostalgic voters to show up many months after the series has ended its run.

5. It has a trailer. Prepare to laugh at “The return is justified.”

6. Olyphant’s real-life daughter portrays a teenage Willa. Although the math doesn’t add up, it’s been 15 years since Raylan left Harlan for Florida. This means that Raylan and Winona’s (Natalie Zea) daughter Willa, who was a sweet 4-year-old after the time jump at the end of the series, is now a stubborn 15-year-old in the revival. She is portrayed by Olyphant’s daughter Vivian. The choice to fudge the timeline had little to do with the age of the actress portraying the character though. It came down to dramatic considerations. “The age that she plays — 15 going on 16 — there’s a short window that Raylan has,” said Dinner. “He’s at a point in his life where that road is pretty short in front of him. … He’s facing mandatory retirement in the marshal service.”

“We were attracted to the idea that this is a ticking clock,” added Olyphant. “[He’s] about to lose [Willa] no matter what [because of her age].”

Besides the Olyphants, Holbrook, Curtis-Hall, Ellis and Clemens, the cast also includes Marin Ireland, Norbert Leo Butz and Victor Williams as members of the Detroit Police Department with whom Raylan works to catch Mansell.

7. The show will address what’s happened to some of our favorite characters. Early in the revival’s development, the producers did not want to bring back any characters from “Justified’s” original run. They eventually reconsidered, deciding that as long as it made sense organically within the story they would explore the idea. While they won’t say who might return or be referenced within the narrative, the producers did confirm that we will find out what’s happened to some of the show’s finest. (Here’s hoping one of said characters is Jere Burns’ Wynn Duffy.)

8. It’s self-aware regarding the changing perception of law enforcement. Early in the revival’s development, the producers did not want to bring back any characters from “Justified’s” original run. They eventually reconsidered, deciding that as long as it made sense organically within the story they would explore the idea. We can’t say who you’ll see, but we can confirm that the handful of familiar faces that pop up throughout the show’s eight episodes do fit organically into the story. It might not always be who you expect, but it always makes sense.

“We’re not a show that cheerleads for law enforcement,” added Olyphant. “Part of what makes Elmore Leonard’s world, and our world, something a little different is the characters are self-aware a little bit. They’re aware of their flaws and they’re aware of their shortcomings. And they’re aware it’s complicated.”

9. You can watch it without having seen the original series, but it’s not recommended. One of the questions that comes up when a show is revived is whether the new episodes can be watched as a stand-alone story or if one needs to have seen the original series. “Justified: City Primeval” is meant to stand on its own and be an “extension of the universe,” as Clemens put it, so you can certainly jump in and follow the story without any knowledge of what’s come before. But some of the storytelling decisions and emotional beats won’t resonate fully unless one understands Raylan’s backstory, his complicated relationship with his late father and how that factors into his own choices as a parent. There are also Easter eggs for longtime fans. So while you can watch “Justified: City Primeval” without watching the original series, it won’t make for the best viewing experience.

10. It might not be the last we see of Raylan Givens. “Justified: City Primeval” ends in such a way that it can easily serve as a true and satisfying end to Raylan’s personal journey. But, if one prefers, it can also be read as the beginning of yet another chapter. It’s difficult to tell what, exactly, the creative team is planning, but when asked if he’d be interested in extending the universe even further, Olyphant said he is more than willing. “I’d show up,” he quipped.

“Justified: City Primeval” premieres Tuesday, July 18 at 10/9c on FX.

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