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'Rectify': An Ex-Con Navigates The World Outside

Daniel (Aden Young) finds a supporter in the devout Tawney (Adelaide Clemens) — if not among all of his other neighbors — when he's exonerated after spending more than 19 years in prison for a crime he did't commit.
Sundance Film Channel
Daniel (Aden Young) finds a supporter in the devout Tawney (Adelaide Clemens) — if not among all of his other neighbors — when he's exonerated after spending more than 19 years in prison for a crime he did't commit.

Rectify, a new drama series from the Sundance Channel, wants to stand out from the pack — and it certainly succeeds at that. It's a six-hour limited series, more along the British model of TV than ours here in the States. If these first six installments catch on enough, the story will continue. If not, that's it.

And Rectify is so unusual a show, with its own deliberate pace and premise and approach, that it may not build enough viewership to keep going. But that doesn't mean it's not a worthwhile show, or a memorable one — because it is.

Rectify was created by actor Ray McKinnon, who played the ill-fated minister on HBO's Deadwood. Its other executive producers, along with McKinnon, are Mark Johnson and Melissa Bernstein, producers on AMC's Breaking Bad. So the lineage here is spectacular. The plot, though, has almost nothing to do with spectacle. There's a lot less going on — and that's clearly on purpose.

Rectify stars Aden Young as Daniel Holden, a man who was convicted as a teen of raping and murdering his girlfriend, and who has been languishing since on death row in a Georgia prison. After 19 years, thanks to a re-examination of the DNA evidence, he is suddenly set free, and he returns to his family and hometown.

Except he's returning to what is, by now, a completely unfamiliar environment — one that's bewildering and often hostile as well.

Over the course of the series' six hours, we're shown flashbacks to Daniel's years in prison, and we learn something about the coping skills that helped him deal with the near-total isolation. Books became his salvation, and he read a lot of philosophy and religion, so he emerges from prison with a lot on his mind — but no skills at how to share his thoughts.

He's so silent and passive so much of the time, in fact, that he's like Peter Sellers as Chauncey Gardiner in Being There. When he does speak, he reveals how much inner turmoil and confusion is bubbling beneath that calm surface.

When he's released from prison, for example, he's ushered to a quickly assembled outdoor press conference to confront the media. He's guided to the bank of microphones as TV cameras home in on him, eager for a quick sound bite — but Daniel is unprepared, and in no hurry, and his answer shows just how out of sync he is with the pace of life he's about to experience.

I don't think I've ever seen a TV character, at the center of a TV series, who's anywhere near as passive as Daniel Holden is written and portrayed here. Daniel doesn't do anything — at least not in these six episodes, which dramatize his first week of release from prison. Instead, he either accepts or refuses invitations, engages in conversations or declines to, as he's approached by those around him. It's a gripping performance, but not a showy one.

The women around him manage to get him to reveal the most: There's his sister (Abigail Spencer), who has believed in him all along; his mother (J. Smith-Cameron), who has remarried while Daniel was in prison after his father died; and Tawney, played by Adelaide Clemens of HBO's Parade's End, as a devout Christian who sees good in Daniel when so many still see him as guilty. These actresses are all very good, and the women they play are extremely different, and complicated in their own right.

Daniel floats among these characters and others, and along various situations, like a leaf in a stream. But his character is revealed, and built up, through the directions he allows himself to be taken in, and in the ways he reacts: a small smile when he unpacks a box in the attic and retrieves his old Atari games and mixtapes; a horrifying story he tells, when asked, about life in prison. And, often, he is revealed just in the way he actively soaks in his new environment: nature, the buildings, the people, even the wind.

The connection to Breaking Bad is obvious here in two key respects. One, the photography is beautiful, with scenes filmed cinematically and often hauntingly. And two, the pace is defiantly deliberate. Some silences, and some entire scenes, go on and on way past the point of comfort — but that's just reflecting things from Daniel's point of view, where time is all there is.

The six episodes of Rectify demand that you adjust to their method of storytelling — slow, prone to detours, almost anything but linear. But since Daniel has to work so hard to adjust, why shouldn't we viewers carry some of the load?

Those who do, I suspect, will come to the end of Rectify wondering what happens to Daniel next — and wanting more.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Bianculli
David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.