I love a lot of things about “Justified”: the blend of serialized and segmented storytelling; the grand sense of place and adventure; the dialogue and characters. But time and again I’m taken with the show’s sense of place, and its commitment to creating a burned-out little universe that feels as real and lived-in as the Baltimore of “The Wire.” I finally realized what it is about the show’s depiction of Harlan that’s so arresting, and what reminded me of “The Wire” to begin with: its sense of poverty.
Poverty on television is something to be mocked or ignored, especially when dealing with people from the South. MTV’s latest reality show, “Buckwild,” takes place in West Virginia and gets a lot of mileage out of turning its characters into cartoons. But “Justified” looks with open eyes into the real face of people who are struggling to survive, and who in their desperation and anger have made some very bad choices. Ellen May, one of the strung-out prostitutes who works for Boyd Crowder, is a truly pitiable woman, but she’s not a joke. She’s a real person, bruised and lonely, and worthy of so much more than being a punch line.
Her decision to attend the church in the wild — to raise her hands with snake-handlers, to cry at the thought of being saved and held close — makes absolute sense. Logistically, the show needed a narrative way to put the church on Boyd’s radar, but emotionally, it rings true for ELlen May to find these people and ask for help. Similarly, the show doesn’t treat the church’s members as rubes, or its charismatic leader as a charlatan or psycho. These are simply real people, living poor and troubles lives the likes of which we rarely see on narrative television.
It’s not that these people are all saints, or that they don’t do stupid things. But their downfall is never because they’re poor, and the joke is never that they don’t have clean shirts. The series does its characters and viewers a powerful service by simply taking these types of poverties and folding them into the larger narrative. That’s what makes it feel so real, and why it has the power to move us.