Sundance Channel's Rectify fittingly started with an image of its protagonist Daniel Holden peering through a window. During the fantastic six-episode first season, which concluded last night, Daniel did a lot of staring. He stared at the displays in big-box stores. He stared at one of those wacky, inflatable dancing tube men that are popular with used-car lots. He stared through his family when they first picked him up from prison in the series premiere. But it was never clear, during all this staring, whether he was peering in or looking out, including in that first striking shot. Does he belong where he is, or would he fit better somewhere else? That's the question that persists throughout Rectify's marvelous first season.
I'm treating this writeup as a (mostly) spoiler-free collection of words about the series as a whole in an effort to get more eyes on it, because it deserves all the attention it can get. Sundance, an offshoot of AMC, doesn't have the marketing funds to spread the word, so it's partly up to TV writers like me to preach the gospel. You should watch this show.
Rectify was created by Ray McKinnon, the man behind the acclaimed short film The Accountant. But you probably know him best as an actor; he played Linc Potter in Sons of Anarchy's fourth season and Reverend Smith in Deadwood. Part family drama, part murder mystery, Rectify's premise is remarkably simple on the surface, but incredibly nuanced and vulnerable upon deeper examination, just like its beating heart, Daniel Holden. After spending 19 years on Death Row for the rape and murder of his high-school sweetheart, new DNA evidence frees Daniel from jail and allows him to return to life in his small Georgia hometown—but it doesn't free him from the loneliness and suspicion that surrounds him after nearly two decades of being locked in a room the size of a walk-in fridge.
The series, which easily tops my list of Best New Shows of 2013 so far (yes, even with the fantastic The Americans to compete with) and is a serious threat to claim the title of Best Show period, is as much about a man readjusting to the outside world as it is about the outside world adjusting to him. Daniel is a man who's permanently caught between two existences; he's in a sort of surreal limbo that looks an awful lot like our real life. Though he's free to do as he pleases, the routine of his life on Death Row life has left him rigid and unable to open up. Though scientific evidence says he's innocent, the guts of most of the citizens in the small town he returns to say he's guilty—and his confession to the crime, which his family say was forced, follows him everywhere. Though he's welcomed back by his friends and family, he's mired in solitude.
At times it's a painful watch. At times it's a jubilant watch. But it's always a challenging, exhilarating, and captivating watch that gets deeper and deeper as the series goes on. The notion is best exemplified in the magnificent must-watch-by-every-human-being fifth episode, "Drip, Drip," in which Daniel is taken for a joy ride by a mysterious man known only as the Goatman. The journey is scattered, sudden, and—for 15 minutes or so—pointless and confusing. Daniel steals goats with the man, wrestles with the man in the woods, and is handed a wad of cash at the end of the trip. Then it's over. It's only later in the episode that we realize the encounter (which may or may not have happened at all, it's never explained) meant so much more as Daniel struggled with his own internal demons. The religious metaphor is there, and it's driven further home with an amazing baptism scene. But it's also stripped down to the basics of the good and evil that lie within every man, and it opens up a new side to Daniel that's both sympathetic and frightening. Rectify loves to take simplicity and fold it into complex puzzles without ever veering into pretentious or pseudo-intellectual territory, but it works on so may levels. Under the surface there's so much to explore. You take as much from Rectify as you're willing to find.
If delving into existentialism is too much for you, then feel free to just enjoy the sights and sounds. Rectify is GORGEOUS in every sense the television will allow. Think Terrence Malick, but on half a cup of coffee and less weed (less, not zero). Trees stretch out across the screen, the camera slowly tracks from a percolating coffee maker to the scene of a beating while a tape of Daniel's confession plays, the modern excess of a department store stacks high against the sky. Every scene is fraught with obsessive attention to detail, the likes of which only Breaking Bad can match. But it's Rectify's sound that may be its hardest worker; scenes are filled with a powerful poignant score that enhances what's on the screen and pushes things to almost emotionally overwhelming levels, and the licensed soundtrack is top-notch.
The biggest knock against Rectify, from what I've read, is its extremely deliberate pacing. And yes, it can be a snail in molasses. It doesn't zip by like 24 or even Friday Night Lights. But like the latter, it's best in the quiet moments that you don't want to stop. The silent beats between dialogue or the extended scenes where there's no dialogue at all are captivating, and say more than words ever can.
Australian actor Aden Young is mesmerizing as Daniel, and will almost certainly be passed over for awards consideration (part of rookie hazing) despite being as good as anyone else out there. Young's deep eyes take the art of staring to a new level, and the uncertainty that fills them transforms Daniel into a character we simultaneously care for and are weary of. Abigail Spencer is fantastic as Daniel's sister Amantha, Clayne Crawford brings just the right amount of despicable haughtiness as Daniel's antagonist stepbrother, Johnny Ray Gill is heartbreaking as another Death Row inmate in Daniel's haunting flashbacks, and the rest of the cast is so well-rounded you'd think they've been together for several seasons.
Rectify borrows the best parts of Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights, Mystic River, and Terrence Malick's films to create a series that works as a powerful work of weekly art. In a time when television series are measured by thrills, big moments, and overachieving heroes, Rectify's appreciation of the subtle and personal feels the most alive. I'm obsessed with it.
NOTE: All six episodes of Rectify's first season are available via On Demand, iTunes, and Amazon. The series has already been renewed for a 10-episode second season scheduled for 2014.