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My debut as an NPR commentator, talking FX's Justified and white, working class guys on TV



justified-movie-poster-1020540955.jpgMade my debut this morning as a bona-fide NPR commentator, writing and recording a piece last week which was broadcast on Morning Edition this A.M.

The radio network is also featuring my piece on their Arts page, which is quite an honor for an NPR geek like me. I'm not smooth as Carl Kasell or even Juan Williams yet, but I think it was a respectable first effort.

Click here to hear the audio, which I haven't yet figured out how to embed. Or read the text, with an extra graph or two, below:

Here are a few things Raylan Givens definitely is not:

Lazy. Insecure. Unsophisticated. Or stupid.

Instead, Givens is a modern-day U.S. marshal with the soul of a sheriff from the old west. He's as crafty, streetwise and smart as you might imagine. Created by novelist Elmore Leonard, bred in eastern Kentucky, Givens represents an interesting trend on FX: smart, emotionally complex working-class heroes.

He's the opposite of the stereotypes we're often fed about working-class men on television. Sent to work his Kentucky hometown after killing one too many suspects in Miami, Givens kicks off this season struggling to rebuild his reputation with his work family and rekindle a relationship with his ex-wife.

In Givens' world, catching the bad guys and winning shootouts is the easy part. Mastering his life and the unpredictable moves of those he loves most; that's what keeps him up at night.

sonsofanarchy1bc9d1.jpgHe's not alone. Look across the wide range of dramas FX has offered recently and you see lots of similar shades: the wisecracking, self destructive fireman Tommy Gavin in Rescue Me; the crafty, streetwise second generation biker gang leader Jax Teller in Sons of Anarchy; the desperate, just-divorced stand up comic and dad in the gritty comedy Louie; and the overextended, desperate ex-heavyweight champ Lights Leary in Lights Out.

Either by design or accident, FX has lined up a mighty array of working-class antiheroes. They are seriously flawed fellows scuffling and scraping for a living while trying to hold their unorthodox families together against the longest odds you can imagine.

They are a long way from the kind of white working-class guys normally portrayed on TV. Think of light-hearted buffoons like Larry the Cable Guy or that bickering father and son team on American Chopper. On FX, these guys have emotional intelligence. They have depth. And they just happen to lead some of the best, most sophisticated dramas on television.

FX's world still seems awfully white, with little room for characters of color in starring roles. And that rare series starring an upper-class woman — Glenn Close's legal drama Damages — was banished to DirecTV after three seasons last year.

FX seems to be slyly re-writing the rules for working-class characters before our eyes. In exchange, we get some of the most exciting, unorthodox figures in series television. It's a pretty good bargain, if you ask me.

Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times.

[Last modified: Thursday, February 10, 2011 11:56am]


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