For as much as HBO has done right in the television world, it’s kind of amazing to read Graham Yost’s tale of how badly they misunderstood Elmore Leonard’s material. Famous for his witty, intelligent characters and next-level dialogue, Leonard’s seedy criminal underworlds have always been buoyed by humor. Recounting his pitch to HBO, Yost said at the 2022 ATX TV Festival:
“I was pitching my heart out and they were giving me nothing back. So I cut out all my jokes and they said it was my best pitch yet. I took out all my funny stuff! By the time I got to the elevators, they made me an offer. But we went with FX because we knew John Landgraf and his team would be open.”
That seemed especially true to Yost after he made a very different pitch to FX, which Landgraf seemed to get immediately:
“I just summed up the show as a four-minute scene between a couple of bad guys talking about chicken, and that we could do those types of things where you didn’t know what was going to happen. You didn’t know if two people were going to become best friends or if one of them was going to shoot the other.”
Yost’s pitch cut straight to the heart of what really made “Justified” work — charismatic characters sharing lengthy scenes of nothing but mesmerizing dialogue and bucketloads of tension. Landgraf got from the start what “Justified” audiences would soon discover. A gritty crime drama is good and all, but it gets a whole lot better when you’ve characters on both sides of the law you can’t help but love.