Even the most artful and complex TV dramas typically have a simple hook to reel us in, one that we can use to recommend the show to others. It might be a high concept like a school teacher cooking crystal meth or a spin on an old genre like the Western or the crime saga. But if TV is indeed compensating for the decline of serious-minded adult entertainment in cinemas, then it follows that a relatively high-profile drama will come along that’s sold by its voice and insight rather than with a logline, just like an auteur-driven indie film. That’s Rectify, the first ongoing drama series from US network SundanceTV.
To be fair, Rectify actually can be summed up easily: it’s about a man released from Death Row after 19 years once new evidence is discovered. But as a hook, it’s not much use. People will assume you’re talking about a crime drama where the guy has to work out what really happened and get some justice. Rectify couldn’t be less interested in that version of itself. Its true appeal can’t be captured in a one-sentence pitch. This is the gentle, measured, and devastating examination of a man learning how to exist in society again. If you recommend Rectify, you’re recommending a perspective on the world.
The six-episode first season covers Daniel Holden’s first six days of freedom. He moves back in with his family in his home town, where everyone remembers the crime he supposedly committed there. Subplots bubble along about the hostility to his homecoming, including the victim’s family’s quiet fury and a state senator’s concern that Daniel’s freedom dims his re-election prospects. The events that sent Daniel to prison are also elusive: his release leads us to assume that he’s innocent of the rape and murder of his high school girlfriend, but doubt creeps in about the part he played or failed to play that night.
It’s a testament to Rectify’s absorbing characterisation that these conflicts almost seem like a distraction from watching he and his family simply be. Creator Ray McKinnon immerses us in the details of an unimaginable transition, where even the casual opening of a door can seem miraculous. Daniel is stoic, sensitive, and vulnerable, basking in the world he never thought he’d see again yet intimidated by its size and unpredictability. His life is now lived moment to moment, and he forces us to reflect on the routines and liberties we take for granted.
Like Daniel, Rectify has a contemplative quality that’s rare in television. Some sequences are reminiscent of Terrence Malick, lingering far longer on striking imagery than more economical shows would. Numerous scenes are just Daniel observing the world around him with Zen-like wonder: the aisles of a department store, a sunrise, the grass of a playing field.
This approach doesn’t just distinguish Rectify – it’s essential to its purpose. A story about adjusting to life after jail has to dwell on individual moments to do any justice to such a complex experience. Long-form television is so apt for such an exploration that it’s surprising no-one’s made a show like this before. Scrutinising the impacts of incarceration over the long-term can’t be achieved as readily with the limited immersion of a single film. At the wrenching end of even this six-episode first season, our journey with Daniel feels long and deeply personal, and there’s at least one more season to come.
The show’s more traditional plot drivers might feel like a concession to mainstream appeal if they weren’t meshed so well with the uncertainty of who Daniel has become. The self-serving antagonism of the state senator is laid on a little thick, but it’s a forgivable lapse to establish a looming threat. The gradual deepening of the mystery surrounding Hanna Dean’s death is otherwise eerie and understated. The question isn’t so much whether Daniel is guilty – although that’s never outright dismissed – but whether his actions that night were the result of a troubled psychology that will continue to affect him and his family. Along with the unclear mental health consequences of his time on Death Row, Daniel is a vaguely ominous enigma even if he’s innocent of the crime that sent him there.
However, he’s far from unsympathetic. Daniel is one of the most touching and heartbreaking screen characters in recent memory. Aden Young is outstanding in the role, conveying through calm stoicism that Daniel is nonetheless a raw nerve. His voice wavers as if he’s on the verge of tears, the shy expression of an ineffable mix of joy, humility, and terror. His vulnerability is agonising but breathtakingly poignant to watch as he contends not only with returning to normal life, but with community hostility and his own stepbrother’s resentment and suspicion.
The dark rhythms of small-town life in Rectify are reminiscent of Friday Night Lights, another small-scale southern US drama that made the everyday feel profound. Both shows signal a future for television as a long-term exploration of community and personal pilgrimage. Rectify goes one step further as it doesn’t even have the narrative engine of high school football. It’s simply about fallout from a tragedy, and that smaller scale and slower pace won’t suit everyone. But for those who see the potential for television to embody the ethos of independent American cinema and share its mantle, Rectify feels like a game-changer.