Sundance Channel, the indie-centric network that is closely aligned with corporate sibling AMC, is quickly ascending to a place of prominence in an increasingly fragmented television landscape. For the longest time, the network was identifiable as the home of independent films, repeats of Lisa Kudrow’s short-lived HBO mockumentary The Comeback, and some forgettable reality fare. It lacked a cohesive programming identity and existed within the same hazy hinterlands as IFC.
But in the last year, Sundance Channel has found itself in the white-hot spotlight normally reserved for AMC—home of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead—thanks to a slew of high-profile and critically acclaimed shows, like the gripping paraplegic unscripted series Push Girls, Jane Campion’s haunting mystery drama Top of the Lake, and now Rectify, a six-episode drama that begins Monday.
The network’s first wholly owned original series, Rectify, created by Ray McKinnon, is exactly the type of show that would have once aired on AMC. (Ironically enough, it was originally developed for the channel.) It’s a breathtaking work of immense beauty and a thought-provoking meditation on the nature of crime and punishment, of identity and solitude, of guilt and absolution. It is, quite simply, the best new show of 2013.
Sentenced to die for the rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl, Daniel Holden (Aden Young) is released from prison after 19 years, when his original sentence is vacated, due to new DNA evidence that was overlooked at the time of his original trial. Thanks to the persistence of his headstrong sister, Amantha (a perfectly flinty Abigail Spencer), and his lawyer, Jon Stern (Luke Kirby), Daniel returns home to his mother (True Blood’s J. Smith-Cameron) and to a world he hasn’t seen since he was a teenager. In the small town of Paulie, Georgia, Daniel must rediscover a life forgotten and distant, while outside forces look to demonize him and swing the executioner’s axe once more.
I watched the six-episode first season of Rectify with the sort of rapt attention one usually reserves for high-end television dramas these days, but with one distinct difference. Like Top of the Lake before it, I watched Rectify in two sittings, eagerly speeding through these six episodes with almost beatific devotion. I don’t want to call that “binge watching,” because binge has a rather negative connotation (it implies that you should, perhaps, feel guilt for overindulging). Instead, I see it as “holistic viewing,” attempting to judge the work on its complete form, rather than on just its individual parts.
In either case, however, Rectify embraces a gritty independent cinema feel, delivering installments (and a larger whole) that is both transcendent and weighty, and able to be enjoyed and felt on multiple levels. The twin overarching plots—Did Daniel commit this heinous crime and, if not, who did? How does Daniel readjust to life outside prison?—are merely a gateway for exploring a host of substantive issues, ranging from morality and religious belief to issues of connection and isolation.
After a two-decade stint on death row, Daniel emerges to a world that he does not recognize, and which largely sees him as a figure of scorn and hatred or, at the very least, curiosity and suspicion. Young delivers a dazzling performance as Daniel, a man metaphorically untethered from time and space. Daniel often feels as though he is still in high school, rather than a man in his late 30s; Young imbues a scene of him in the bath, staring at his reflection and the unfamiliar lines on his face, with a sense of wonder and dread. A DVD player becomes an emblem of time’s swift passage; an ancient video game console (and Sonic the Hedgehog) a connection to his lost youth.
Within Rectify, time itself seems fluid and yielding, as the action ricochets between Daniel’s reawakening to sensations and his time on death row, best embodied in his friendship with a fellow death row convict, Kerwin, played with immense compassion by Johnny Ray Gill. Here, in a virtual no-man’s land, Daniel finds himself trapped between an angel and devil, a sort of cinder block purgatory where, condemned to death, he awaits the final verdict. On the outside, Daniel finds himself adrift, and despite the well-meaning intentions of his family, he wanders, lost, in a vast wilderness. His saintly sister-in-law, Tawney (Adelaide Clemens, who could easily be a long-lost sibling of Michelle Williams and Carey Mulligan), offers Daniel a tether, seeing her faith as a way of saving his soul.
Daniel himself seems to exist outside or above human emotion, exhibiting a sort of Zen calm that is at odds with his situation. Young speaks in a deliberately slow, languid style—one that echoes the show itself—as if he is relearning human language word by word. But despite the morose overtones, the show thrives in its depiction of beauty, which it finds in the natural world and in the unexpected connections between people. A grove of trees becomes something profound, a sunrise something majestic, an embrace an electric current. Everything Daniel encounters—including himself—is a puzzle to be solved.
Despite the intensity of the townspeople’s gaze and the palpable heat of their hatred, Young’s Daniel retains a sense of wonder about the world around him as he rediscovers what it means to be human. Daniel’s release from prison creates ripples throughout Paulie, and his presence has unforeseen consequences for all of his family’s members. Rifts form where there were none; the marriage between Daniel’s thorny stepbrother, Ted Jr. (Clayne Crawford), and Tawney suddenly splintering under scrutiny. And when Ted Jr. trains his rancor onto Daniel, the results are startling.
Rectify deftly walks a wire-thin tightrope when it comes to Daniel’s guilt or innocence. What happened the night of Hannah’s murder remains a tantalizing mystery, one with clues sprinkled throughout the six episodes. While Daniel attempts to come to terms with his hard-earned freedom, others—including a venal state senator (Michael O'Neill) and a lazy sheriff (J.D. Evermore)—look to pin the blame for Hannah’s rape and murder back on him, while some in this sleepy town might prefer to take their own brand of justice against Daniel.
With Rectify, McKinnon creates a world of light and darkness, and of heaven and hell, one that exerts a powerful gravity from which it is impossible to escape. Still, there are glimpses of pure joy to be found here, moments of profound beauty and intensity that are unlike anything else on television. And when Amantha comes across Daniel dancing to Cracker’s “Low” on his ancient Walkman in the attic, and she can’t help but smile, it reminds us that, even in the valley of the shadow of death, the human spirit is unbreakable.