Midway through the fourth season of "Justified," an out-of-town hoodlum tells Kentucky drug kingpin Boyd Crowder, "I love how you talk, using 40 words where four will do." The thug makes a point. Boyd, played by Walton Goggins, may well be the most loquacious psychopath in prime time.
Set in rural Kentucky, FX's series includes enough gunplay to satisfy crime-genre fans, but it's the killer dialogue that steals this show. "Justified" cast members have made the most of it with performances that have so far reaped five Emmy acting nominations and two wins.
Creator and executive producer Graham Yost traces the show's verbally dexterous blend of gore, goofiness and wit to crime writer Elmore Leonard, whose "Fire in the Hole" novella inspired the series. "It starts with Elmore," Yost says. "He has a very particular way of having people speak and pays attention to regional stuff without hitting it over the head. It's more vocabulary than any accent thing."
Outside the writers' room, cast members periodically weigh in with their own script tweaks. Yost recalls, "My original dialogue for one scene between Boyd and this ex-drug dealer who found God was simply, 'I've never heard of that church.' Walton said, 'How 'bout if I said, 'I've never heard of that particular collection plate?' That goes to Boyd's enjoyment of language. He likes the fact that he's smarter than most of the people he comes in contact with, so he will show off a little bit."
As the "Justified" autodidact in residence, Goggins' Boyd may rank highest on the series' what-will-they-say-next meter, but "Justified" writers also devise vivid verbal riffs for a thicket of secondary characters. Drug-addled prostitute Ellen May (Abby Miller), Raylan's criminally unrepentant and now deceased father, Arlo (Raymond J. Barry), and sleazy businessman Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) consistently embellish plot points with clever off-message asides.
During a tense hostage standoff, lawman Tim (Jacob Pitts) and Boyd's Army buddy Colton (Ron Eldard) suddenly start recapping the classic western movie "The Wild Bunch." "That kind of circumambulation is also an Elmore thing," Yost says. "In 'Out of Sight' [another Leonard adaptation], when Jack Foley — George Clooney — and Karen Sisco get locked in a trunk together, they talk about movies. Sometimes it has to do directly with what's going on. Other times it's more tangential."
"Justified" writer Dave Andron notes that Timothy Olyphant, a veteran of HBO's hyper-literary "Deadwood" western who stars as wry Marshal Raylan Givens, also pushes hard to purge scripts of straight-ahead exposition. "Tim harps on the information being the least important thing in the scene," Andron says. "Is the scene funny? Can we make it more interesting? Is the scene really odd? Why is it dangerous? You obviously have to move the story forward, but when you sit down to write a scene for 'Justified,' the information comes in at No. 5 or whatever on the list of things we try to accomplish."
The writers also wrest dramatic mileage from the characters' habit of concealing brutal intentions beneath a sheath of Southern hospitality. Andron, whose ancestors hail from Mount Pleasant, Tenn., notes, "In one episode, Raylan walks into a scene with a bad guy and starts talking about the Corvette out front. 'Nice 'vette.' They have this whole conversation about a car and all the while, Raylan knows this guy murdered someone. If you can do the scene where they're not talking about the thing they're talking about, you're in good shape."
The show's off-kilter speechifying and humor-laced violence share a kindred sensibility with Quentin Tarantino, who based his "Jackie Brown" movie on Leonard's "Rum Punch." But Yost stops short of claiming a singular authorial voice for "Justified."
"You hear a page written by David Mamet, you know it's Mamet. The way 'West Wing' characters talk, they're so entertaining and smart and fun and surprising, yet you can hear the typewriter. It's definitely Aaron Sorkin. Same with Tarantino. I don't think we have that level of particularity. There's no sole authorship, but I do think there is a 'Justified' style. It all comes back to Elmore and all of us pulling in that direction."