Ray McKinnon, "Deadwood's" doomed reverend and the man behind the Sundance Channel's contemplative character study "Rectify," sits in a dark, windowless room in Los Angeles, working with three editors on three different episodes from "Rectify's" upcoming second season, wondering, really, if they should just leave well enough alone.
"We're at a point where you feel like you have the most beautiful rock in the world, but you're pushing it up the hill every day," McKinnon says. "Someone used the word 'luxury' because we've gone from six episodes to 10 this season. We have the 'luxury' of having more room to tell the story. And I thought, 'Have I been looking at it wrong this whole time? It's a luxury?'"
McKinnon laughs, and in the comically rueful way he says "luxury," you immediately hear the voice of "Rectify's" Zen calm protagonist, Daniel Holden (Aden Young), a damaged man looking for meaning in the world after being released from death row for a rape and murder he may — or may not — have committed. McKinnon clearly shares Daniel's capacity to recognize and appreciate the absurdities and the little bits of magic that each new day brings. Also, like Daniel, McKinnon struggles with whether any of it really matters.
"It's a daily endeavor and some days I succeed more than others," McKinnon, 56, says.
Today we'll call it a draw. "Rectify," which returns to the Sundance Channel on Thursday, began as an existential exercise for McKinnon. If Daniel, living in a six-by-nine, windowless prison cell (which isn't too far removed from the room where McKinnon finds himself spending most of his time these days), could find things that give life meaning, then isn't there hope for the rest of us?
"Ray is a man who, as a storyteller, understands the intense joy and pain of living," Sundance Channel president Sarah Barnett says, adding she considers "Rectify" the network's "signature show." "He takes his time, sculpting the story, but when he arrives at these moments of emotion, they are so real and honest ... their intensity can almost take your breath away."
The events in the show's first season took place over the course of a week, beginning with Daniel leaving prison and returning to his protective family — mother Janet (J. Smith-Cameron) and sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) — and the small Georgia town he hasn't seen since he was a teenager. He's greeted with curiosity, suspicion and outright hatred, though Daniel's biggest challenge may be simply readjusting to a world he no longer understands.
When the Sundance Channel renewed the show, McKinnon, in what he calls the "cloak of darkness," wrote the second season's first episode and several other scenes to see what the characters might be telling him. "Also, to see if the muse was still around," McKinnon says. "'Hello?'" he calls out in a tone of mock desperation. "'Are you still there? Hello?'"
The second season alters the course of Daniel's journey. He's no longer, McKinnon says, "Chauncey Gardiner coming out of hiding," referring to Peter Sellers' character in "Being There." "He's going to take a bite of the apple," McKinnon says. "Or try to disengage from the world and see how successful he is at that. It's a great theory, but the world has a way of drawing you back in, unless you're in a monastery. Or a cell."
The themes of redemption and forgiveness are once again prominent, both pertaining to Daniel as well as the show's other characters. Daniel's step-brother-in-law Ted (Clayne Crawford) harbors resentment toward Daniel for reasons unfathomable and understandable. In the latter column: A deep connection has developed between Daniel and Ted's devout wife, Tawney (Adelaide Clemens).
""We're all constantly having to forgive and be forgiven on some level," McKinnon says. "It's part of what being human is. If we didn't, our resentment list would be so long that we'd have to get another computer just to put it on."
And McKinnon definitely gives the impression that owning one computer is plenty. Toggling between acting and filmmaking (he won the live action short Oscar in 2001 with his late wife, Lisa Blount) over the last 25 years, he has fashioned a distinctive career that, as "Rectify" star Young puts it, is "ripening at just the right time."
"I've never had a great game plan," McKinnon says. "I just followed my bliss or my desperation or whatever it was that was leading me at the time, and I came to this story. And it went away and it came back and now here we are, and I can't help but feel I'm one of the luckiest people around."
When: 9 p.m. Thursday