Sundance Channel’s “Rectify” is the first and possibly only television show one can imagine Flannery O’Connor blogging about.
It isn’t just good TV, it’s revelatory TV. The genre’s biggest potential game changer since AMC debuted the one-two punch of “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” “Television can do that?” we asked in wonder as Don Draper squinted in cultural allegory over his Scotch on the rocks.
Yes it can, and now, thanks to creator Ray McKinnon and the cast of “Rectify,” television can also immerse the viewer in a gloriously rich and careful study of how endurance and faith, strength and surrender, fear and serenity balance to form the essential nature of humanity.
Television as prose poem.
The six episodes follow six days in the life of Daniel Holden (Aden Young), a small-town Georgian who spent 19 years on death row for the rape and murder of his high school girlfriend. New DNA evidence forces the state to vacate his conviction, setting Daniel free but not exonerating him. We meet him as he is leaving prison, reuniting with a world, and a family, that stare back at him in similar shock and confusion.
Having spent most of his formative years in a cell, Daniel has become a mesmerizing and terrifying embodiment of the interior life. Even Harper Lee’s Boo Radley, surely Daniel’s closest literary cousin, was allowed a connection, however secretive and tenuous, to the outside world. But here we see, from the moment Daniel steps out of his cell, a life turned literally inside out.
His release almost immediately causes more pain than relief. It unleashes a flood of emotions in which McKinnon allows his characters to churn and choke with no judgment but no attempt at rescue either.
Daniel’s mother, Janet (J. Smith Cameron), greets her son with love but also the wariness of a woman approaching a buzz saw that already claimed her arm. His stepfather, Ted (Bruce McKinnon, no relation to Ray), resolutely ignores the situation’s complexities, acting as if justice has simply and finally been done.
Daniel’s stepbrother, Ted Jr. (Clayne Crawford), is another story. His family position now in jeopardy (namely, the automotive store he “inherited” from Daniel’s father), Ted Jr. views Daniel as probably guilty of the original crime — and certainly guilty of disrupting the family, the town and eventually, the composure of Ted Jr.'s lovely, born-again wife, Tawney (Adelaide Clemens).
Only Daniel’s sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) is undivided in her feelings — her love at having her brother returned, in whatever condition, under whatever circumstances, is the warm tide that carries Daniel, their mother and the audience through the strange and perilous first hours of Daniel’s return.
Many people aren’t thrilled about Daniel’s release, especially those who put him in jail. Chief among them are the prosecuting attorney, Roland Foulkes (the always splendid Michael O’Neill), who vaulted to a Senate seat thanks to the conviction, and the sheriff’s department, which cut corners to build its case.
The mystery of who did rape and kill Daniel’s girlfriend Hannah and if, or how, it was covered up, forms the rather familiar B-plot of “Rectify.” Fortunately, Ray McKinnon, who won an Oscar for his live-action short “The Accountant” and starred as a high school football coach in “The Blind Side,” grants all of his characters some measure of depth.
Although “Rectify” is anchored by what has become an alarmingly predictable conceit — the murder of a young woman jump-starts far too many shows these days, and the rape aspect resembles a similar plot line in Sundance’s just-concluded “Top of the Lake” — it doesn’t matter, honestly. This is Daniel’s story.
Everything, the writing, the directing, the cinematography, the sound editing, works to bring this character to life. Shots linger on the green wonderland of an ordinary backyard or the crowded silence of an empty morning kitchen. The scrape of a fork on a plate, the opening and closing of a door, all force the viewer to look again, look anew, as if we too had been separated from reality for all those years.
In the middle of it all is the astonishing Young. Others have attempted to portray what happens when a person is stripped down by exile and then thrust back into the world — Damian Lewis, with his wild gift for stillness, is something of a master, having played an exonerated cop in “Life” and more recently, an American soldier broken down and rebuilt by terrorists in “Homeland” — but Young sets a new standard, delivering an exquisitely textured physical performance.
And never before has a television show so firmly focused on transformation and transition. God is here, in “Rectify,” unapologetically, as are sex and violence, decency and indecency.
The limitations and beauty of innocence are revealed, and the endlessly running crosscurrents of human emotion that make people rarely one thing or another lap up against every scene.
The sixth-episode ending certainly allows for a seventh, and a second season is something to wish for — albeit carefully. “Rectify” is quite perfect just as it is.
When: 9 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)