At any prior point in TV history, Rectify, a six-part drama on the Sundance channel, would be a shake-up-the-medium astonishment: A sober, even stately investigation into a curious kind of afterlife, that of a death-row inmate given freedom twenty years after his conviction. For all the finely crafted mysteries of its plot, and all those clues doled out hair by hair, the show’s true interest is in nothing less than the human mind’s place in time. Instead, spoiled as we all are in this epoch of quality serialized television, Rectify stands as often excellent, occasionally transcendent, and, dispiritingly, sometimes as just more sturdy, conventional TV.
For two decades Daniel Holde (Aiden Young) endured solitary confinement for a crime that no DNA evidence can tie him to. Somehow, starved of all of the elements of a life except time, he found within himself the means to survive, even to achieve a circumstantial mastery over his meager scratch of existence. He’s like those pink-tipped tube worms that thrive on the deepest vents of the Pacific floor — doing fine but not fit for a relocation.
A strapping but gentle man, Daniel turns to calmness, to meditation, to not judging the moments through which he passes. He reads a lot. In the premiere, following years of activist and legal work led by his sister (Abigail Spencer), Daniel comes home, not quite exonerated but not quite guilty, either. (It’s a legal limbo clearly inspired by the plight of the West Memphis Three.) Asked by a reporter why he doesn’t seem upset about the life that he’s missed, Daniel says, with steady eyes and the affectlessness of an accountant reciting figures, “Perhaps I will be angrier later, as I will be happier.” He speaks in blunt aphorisms, and actually has an excuse for when he indulges in that tic that forever separates TV characters from the rest of us: that tendency to announce out loud exactly what he’s feeling.
Each of the six episodes details one day of his life back in his mother’s house, where family life has been complicated by his mother’s second marriage. One day he spends lying in a field, agog at the world; one he spends holed up in his room, preferring the life he knows. And one, the most moving, he spends in the attic, dressed in his father’s fishing clothes, rocking out to 1993’s mixtapes on a Walkman: Cracker! Mazzy Star!
“I find myself in a state of constant anticipation,” he says, of life outside of prison. But: “What it is I’m anticipating I’m not always sure, nor is it necessarily a pleasant feeling.” Alone, he still can master individual slices of time; with people, he seems adrift, unsure whether he’s been out a day or a month.
Meanwhile, the local cops and the former prosecutor — now a state senator — are convinced, like many of the residents of this small Georgia town, that Daniel is a rapist and killer.
The mysteries are compelling, too. There’s a tangle: What exactly is the crime he was convicted for? Could he be guilty? Why did he confess? What did he suffer in prison? Would he rather be incarcerated? Will the witnesses against him recant? What’s going on with his sister, a small-town escapee who now lacks a cause, and his lawyer, (Luke Kirby), a do-gooding hunk? And is there violence bristling beneath Daniel’s calm?
There’s much more, involving marital troubles, line-of-succession politics at the family’s tire store, a surprise death, and on and on. There may be too much: When the show parts from Daniel, it often slumps into the kind of prestigious but not especially inspired cable-TV rut that is now the de facto norm: workaday scenes of bad men’s machinations; episodes that climax with indie-rock montages that check in on all the characters; an attempt at some socioeconomic realism that makes the middle class Hollywood-pretty and the folks down the ladder much more unsightly.
Other than Daniel, only the piece-of-shit sheriff and his townie crew have serious Southern accents and banal TV-style conversations. The state senator canoodles with his waitress steady, who says, “Guess who came in today?” “I don’t know,” he gasses back, “the ghost of Strom Thurmond.” We can believe that Daniel, shaped by his peculiar circumstances, lives an extraordinary existence and says nothing but extraordinary things. But people who talk like that senator could only have been shaped in the dreariest of places: a TV show’s writers’ room.