'Justified' might exaggerate, but many in Harlan like the TV show

Timothy  Olyphant  plays U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in Justified.
Timothy Olyphant plays U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in Justified. FX

Violent drug traffickers and thieves.

Crooked cops and white supremacists.

A cunning mountain matriarch who used poisoned moonshine to kill a man and double-crossed her neighbors in a coal deal.

Those are some of the ways people in Harlan County have been portrayed in the hit show Justified. The FX network program is about a deputy U.S. Marshal who grew up in the iconic Eastern Kentucky county and now battles its criminal elements.

Despite the less-than-positive image of Harlan residents, the show has a lot of fans locally.

"You'll find that most people here like it," said Jackie Cornett, who hosts the Crow in the Morning Show on WTUK radio in Harlan.

To be sure, some people wish the show would include more positive images of the county.

The county has more good, moral, educated people than the show makes it appear, said Bobbie Gothard, director of Tri-Cities Heritage, which works for civic improvement in Cumberland and the nearby historical mining towns of Benham and Lynch.

Gothard said she felt discouraged after watching the show's debut in 2010. She is not a regular viewer.

"Please don't leave the audience thinking we are dumb, uneducated and alcoholics," she said.

However, others said they're not worried that the county's image will suffer because of the show.

"The program is purely fiction and only uses Harlan and Lexington as props," said Roger Noe, a professor at Southeast Community and Technical College and a former state representative.

Local historian James S. Greene III, an administrator in the Harlan Independent school system, said it would be nice if the show was more authentic.

But shows based in Hawaii, New York or Miami don't portray those places exactly as they are, either, he said.

"It's not supposed to be a literal interpretation of Harlan," Greene said of Justified. "It's not sociology. It's not journalism. It's not history."

Greene said some people are not interested in the show, but the reaction he has heard is generally positive.

Greene is a fan. He sees the show as a compelling drama and likes seeing Harlan County with a role in a national show.

"I just kind of feel like we're special," Greene said. "I think we should just enjoy the fact that Harlan County has a reputation."

People in Harlan County and elsewhere in Eastern Kentucky have often complained that popular culture and media reports cast the region in a negative light.

A 2009 ABC news show about children and poverty in Eastern Kentucky, for instance, brought sharp criticism from residents who thought the program focused too much on the image of toothless, drug-addled people in the mountains.

Justified hasn't caused the same kind of heartburn because it's clearly entertainment, overplaying violence and corruption for dramatic effect, several people said.

Magistrate David Kennedy said some local people are doubtless upset by the way the program portrays the county, but most aren't.

"They know it's just a fictitious show," Kennedy said. "We don't take it personally. Do I get upset about The Beverly Hillbillies from years ago? No, I don't."

Mark Bell, president of the Harlan County Chamber of Commerce, said the office sometimes gets calls from people asking whether the county is really like that place on television.

"It's a whole lot more like Mayberry than Justified," Bell said.

Still, the county has had a colorful, checkered history that helped fix its place in the national imagination long before Justified.

The county's murder rate, driven by the upheaval of rapid industrialization in the coal industry and other factors, was the highest in the nation during part of the 1920s. In the 1930s, violent clashes between union miners and coal-company guards cemented the nickname "Bloody Harlan."

And more recent history hasn't been too far removed from some Justified plot lines, local fans pointed out.

In the early 1980s, for instance, then-Sheriff Paul L. Browning Jr. was convicted of plotting to kill political enemies.

When Browning tried to regain the office in 2002, a deputy who was taking payoffs from a drug dealer provided a gun and a $1,000 payment to have Browning murdered.

The deputy, Roger D. Hall — son of a longtime county magistrate — apparently was afraid that if Browning won, he would fire Hall, cutting off his access to drug bribes. Hall pleaded guilty and is serving 30 years in prison.

One local criticism of the show is that it doesn't look like Harlan County. The show is filmed in California for financial reasons.

"Why didn't they do all the producing here in the county, which would sure have helped our economy?" asked Lydia Dykes, vice president of the Harlan County Historical Network. "There needs to be more realistic scenes."

The show has used several songs from the local Cumberland River Band, however, boosting the band's visibility.

Local viewers also have noticed inaccuracies in the show, such as making it seem like a short drive from Lexington to Harlan when it takes nearly three hours.

The first season featured skinhead white supremacists in Harlan County — something local people said simply doesn't exist in the county.

Representatives of the show later came to Harlan County to do research, and there were fewer wrong notes in Season 2, local fans said.

"When they first started writing, they were sort of in the blind," said Jerry Asher, a retired miner who volunteers at the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in Benham.

Asher showed people from the show around the museum and other locations, and he said he has kept in contact with writers, sending them suggestions on dialogue and cultural references.

He recently sent them a University of Kentucky cap and advised the writers that they should include some UK basketball references because of the school's rabid fan base.

Asher said he thinks the show will boost Harlan County's profile and could help tourism.

In a tour group of 90 railroad buffs, more than 30 asked him about the show, Asher said, and two people called from Nashville wanting him to take them on the same tour he gave the Justified writers.

"I believe we'll get more positive out of it than negative," he said.

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