They Must Be on Acid: Why “Rectify” is the Best New Drama on TV

2013 Sundance Portrait - Rectify

Once in a while a show comes along you’ve never heard of, and it just blows your doors off. The writing, acting, directing, and all the production remind you of why you might have wanted to be a writer, actor, or director in the first place. Or, if you didn’t want to be any of those things, it’s just a damn good show.

The inaugural six-episode season of Rectify aired on the Sundance Channel last year. It is the first series to be put out by the Sundance Channel and can now be viewed on Netflix. The show’s creator and writer is Ray McKinnon.

McKinnon, like the rest of the talent involved, may not be someone whose name you recognize. You’d know his face, though, if you ever watched Deadwood – that earnest preacher who was dying of consumption while he saved the souls of others in his quirky, gangly way was McKinnon. He’s also been the eccentric, obsessed, leather-clad FBI agent in Sons of Anarchy, and carried vital, supporting roles in top-notch indie films like That Evening Sun, Take Shelter, and Mud. Who knew the character actor had such a talent for writing?

Rectify has a sublimely simple premise: a man on death row for 20 years has his sentence vacated when new evidence comes to light. That evidence is DNA, proving that someone else was more likely responsible for the rape and murder of a teenage girl back when the main character was a teen himself. So the man on death row, Daniel Holden, gets let out of prison. But, “vacated” is the operative word; he’s not been exonerated. Prosecutors are revving up to re-try the case, local cops have it in for Daniel, and the small Georgia town is divided between thinking he’s innocent and still believing his guilt.

Daniel is often silent, but when he speaks – particularly when he engages other characters in a meaningful way – the writing is superb, evoking the early Darabont-written episodes of The Walking Dead, but mixed with a kind of transcendence; an almost hallucinogenic quality, as if, in certain moments, the characters were dosed with a half-tab of Lysergic acid and their spirit-minds are just firing away.

Daniel is played by Aden Young. Young is another relative unknown, yet, like McKinnon, he’s been enjoying a lengthy, successful career. The Canadian-born, forty-two year-old actor has a long list of TV movies, mini-series, indie films, and has taken turns in big budget films like Sniper and Killer Elite, but, chances are, he comes as a fresh surprise to viewers. Young brings so much to the Daniel Holden character and is an “alternative” enough actor to help suspend all disbelief. He really is Daniel Holden, a man reborn, in many ways, and suffering the terrible institutionalization of being locked in a tiny cell for two decades.

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The brilliance of the show is in its premise, but also in the handling of details. Daniel, for instance, decides he needs eye glasses in a middle episode of the short season, and goes to an optometrist. The eye doctor explains that he is mildly nearsighted, and then muddles through a nervous explanation about how being in an environment with nothing far away to look at can weaken the optic muscles. I.e., Daniel’s vision has deteriorated because he’s been staring at walls for 20 years. It’s a haunting and authentic detail.

But walls are not all Daniel has been staring at. He’s also pored over books during his incarceration. As such, he is well-spoken. That is, when he does speak, and is not lost in the moment as he pulls a feather-pillow apart to watch the feathers drift in a bar of sunlight, or sits in the grass of a baseball field and drinks a soda like a man who just arrived on the planet and has all the simple pleasures to discover, Daniel makes references to Buddhism, Confucianism, and to authors and thinkers like Nietzsche. But his power and magnetism are not in this erudition alone, rather, his state of childish wonder, blended with his suffering of such unfathomable tragedy, create inculpable empathy. His sister-in-law, played by Australian actress Adelaide Clemens, says to her husband that the extent to which Daniel has endured pain might be “even more than Job,” of the Bible.

rectify 2Rectify does not shy away from the big things in life. Instead, it is all about them. The show is ostensibly about a man released from prison to face the prosecutors and townspeople who want him put back in, but this is just the motor. The ride is Daniel’s experience. His rebirth in the world, and his deep, contemplative nature. He has in-laws who are devoutly religious, and a firecracker sister, played by Abigail Spencer, who is much more secular.

The manner with which the show embraces these central issues to a human being’s life – the here and now, the afterlife, God or His absence, and the evil that lurks – is nothing short of masterful. Few TV dramas have gotten to the heart of the human condition and the questions which matter to us the most with such subtlety, wisdom, and immaculate execution as Rectify. It is a must-see.

*****

End note: My wife and I have watched and enjoyed The Fall, Top of the Lake, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Homeland, The Killing, The Walking Dead, In Treatment, The United States of Tara, and House of Cards. While these shows are all quite incomparable, they exist in our personal catalog of “good” to “really good” shows.  I’m pretty certain Rectify has taken over the number one spot for both of us. Season 2 kicks off on the Sundance Channel on June 19th.

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5 Comments

  1. I just wanted to thank you for your wonderful article. I am glad you enjoy the show. I have to say with all humility that I feel the same. I re-watched episode 6 again the other day and cried like a baby … Again. I was actually standing there watching the goodbye scene as it was being shot and it still gets me when I watch it back. The music and the editing and everything is so finely crafted.

    I’m so priveledged to be a part of it.

    Jayson

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    • Jayson – thanks so much for your kind words about my article and for your excellent contribution to the show. That’s the same exact moment that got me crying, too, when they say goodbye. So powerful and perfect – I can’t say enough. Rectify is not only such a captivating show, but inspiring. When I experience great work like this, I get all excited and encouraged to continue with my own efforts. (I’m a writer with my first commercially published novel out this year.) There’s nothing more valuable to me that being inspired like that. So thank you again for being a part of it. Question: I see on your biography you’re also working with Ramin Bahrani — I also have worked for a film festival for years and we showed At Any Price last June. I’m curious if you could share what you’re working on with him. And if you ever feel like sharing more of your experiences on the set of Rectify, how you got the role, etc., I’m all ears!! Kind regards, TJB

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      • 99 Homes is the Bahrani film. We shot it in NOLA in Dec and Jan. The stars are Michael Shannon, Andrew Garfield and Laura Dern. It was a great experience and can be a powerful film. It’s all about the foreclosure crisis. I hope it turns out well. We will see. Ramin is great to work with and very friendly. Smart like nobodies business.

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      • One more thing. I do not fancy myself a writer. I have ideas but not the aptitude nor the patience to flesh them out. My hat is off to you for having the fortitude to do it. Keep going.

        Like

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