[Look, we all know that the Emmys aren’t the most credible of enterprises. Case in point, this is the awards show that gave The Wire only TWO nominations in its entire five-year run (and no, the show didn’t win either one). But for all their faults, these awards DO matter – low-rated risk-taking shows have extended their lifespans based on Emmy recognition, in part because network execs have wet dreams about holding those golden statuettes. So when the voters can’t quite get it right, we’re here to fill you in on the boldest, most exciting shows that you (and more Emmy voters) should really be watching.]
In 2011, Showtime premiered its much-buzzed-about new drama, Homeland, about the rescue of an American P.O.W. and his struggle to readjust to a life of freedom. Damian Lewis was brilliant as the haunted Sgt. Brody, but the rawness and intimacy of his reformation became a casualty of the series’ swift plotting. Now through two seasons (and boasting an Emmy for Best Drama), Homeland has proven itself more concerned with cat-and-mouse spy thriller hijinks than the more nuanced character piece it could’ve been. Sundance Channel’s first completely original series, Rectify, devotes itself to a similar conceit – a man abruptly thrust back into everyday life – with a more refined and graceful approach that pays untold dividends.
Daniel Holden (Aden Young), having spent 19 years on death row for the confessed rape and murder of his teenage girlfriend, is suddenly freed by a conflicting DNA test. Set in the archetypal (that is to say, fictional in name only) Southern town of Paulie, Georgia, Rectify depicts the difficult adjustments that must be made by Daniel, his family, and the townspeople largely opposed to the return of a convicted killer. Mirroring that process of alteration, the series really takes its time – it’s paced with the same slow precision of its characters’ deliberate southern drawls. Like the most inventive new dramas, the show’s pronounced rhythms take some time to adjust to because of how distinct they are from what’s come before.
Though not really “from the creators of Breaking Bad” as the trumpeted adverts suggest (Vince Gilligan has no involvement), Rectify does tick the visionary showrunner box with its creator, Ray McKinnon. Only his proximity to David Milch while portraying the illness-ridden preacher in Deadwood (yes, that guy) might’ve signaled him becoming the next distinct voice in television. Though most recognized for his acting credits, McKinnon does have a pedigree behind the camera – he co-owns a production company with FX’s favorite spiky-haired semi-villain Walton Goggins, and the pair won an Oscar for a short they produced in 2002. Rectify was actually considered as a feature to star Goggins himself, and later as a series on AMC. But just as Matt Weiner’s Mad Men helped define that network after getting a pass from HBO, McKinnon now has the opportunity to do the same on the suddenly up-and-coming Sundance Network.
Daniel is more than just a proverbial fish out of water – he’s practically an alien species, and his acclimation to the modern world comes in fits and starts. Whatever peace he was able to find in solitude is suddenly shattered upon release, as every familial gesture of intimacy feels foreign. It’s fascinating to watch the ways he attempts to recalibrate – reconciling the teenage boy who lived in such an environment with the full-grown man who only knew a life behind bars. Young projects a weary brand of poignancy that can speak volumes even in scenes where he’s doing nothing more than lying down in a baseball field, or staring at an endless rack of flip-flops at Walmart. This is a series that stays attuned to the microcosmic – feathers drifting from a pillow – imbuing them with a sense of wonder.
A stunning cast of somewhat familiar faces complements Young’s understatedly excellent performance. J. Cameron Mitchell (Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan’s wife) plays Daniel’s mother, Luke Kirby (the dreamy rickshaw-pulling adulterer from Take This Waltz) his new lawyer, Clayne Crawford (a guy you hopefully forgot about from season 8 of 24) his stepbrother, and Adelaide Clemens (seemingly plucked from a Carey Mulligan/Michelle Williams lookalike convention) his religious sister-in-law. All the above are upstaged by the scene stealing turn by Abigail Spencer as Daniel’s force-of-nature sister, Amantha (no, I didn’t forget to spell-check that). Before Rectify, Spencer’s most notable role was as Don Draper’s teacher fling in Mad Men season 3, but here she’s a total revelation – fierce, frazzled, protective, and endlessly alive.
McKinnon shows a skill at skirting around the suggestion of stereotype with his ensemble. Clemens imbues her born-again Christian with a radiant sense of belief that resonates with Daniel amid his inner turmoil. Even Crawford, who’s presented as something of an antagonist, set in his ways and unwilling to accommodate for Daniel’s unwelcome entrance, is developed as another damaged and empathetic individual. The show’s closest thing to a cypher is a blustering local senator intent to put Daniel back behind bars, but even his role is a crucial part of the show’s moral tapestry. Though we sympathize with Daniel in thanks to the soulfulness and decency of Young’s portrayal, the senator reminds us that Daniel’s release is not exoneration but a technicality. Lingering questions of his guilt aren’t treated as part of a shock-twist story thread – instead the uncertainty shades every scene and interaction he has with those happy to have him home, and those in opposition.
What powers Rectify’s originality is its willingness to transcend its basic scenario. Refreshingly noncommercial, this is a show that will cut away from scheming politicians in favor of a man playing Sonic the Hedgehog in his attic. There’s a lyrical quality to the moments where only Daniel inhabits the frame, and they’re juxtaposed with glances back at his time in prison. Those hoping for a tidy plot resolution after these first six episodes will be highly disappointed, as they’re primarily concerned with establishing an atmosphere. Shows that have bypassed proper world building have often charged out of the gate just to stall in later seasons. I always think about watching Dexter right after finishing The Wire, the thinness of its police force and outer world immediately apparent, and impossible to sustain. By the end of its first season, Rectify has set the stage for a complex and compelling ethical journey that’s really just begun.
The Sundance Channel’s benchmark for quality was set earlier this year with Jane Campion’s artful miniseries Top of the Lake, a co-production with the BBC, and Rectify in many ways one-ups its predecessor. Calling a television series “cinematic” seems hackneyed in today’s age, but observing the assured rhythms of McKinnon & co.’s camerawork makes you realize how rote even some of the best shows can be. The sweaty town of Paulie, full of picket fences and pecan trees, has a tangible humidity that acts as a suffocating force against the character’s comfort. That sense of place pervades every scene, and importantly so: Daniel’s return sends figurative shockwaves through the entire town. In the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, this storyline seems all the more prescient.
Rectify has already been renewed for a 10-episode second season, and deservedly so. If ever there was a series that can benefit from longevity, it’s this one – as Daniel further integrates himself into his new confines, the show will just become more fascinating to watch. With questions posed and not yet answered, characters conflicted and in search of resolution, Rectify has staked its claim as the next potentially great television drama. Catch up on the set up now, because the pay off promises to be worth it.