Steel yourself for a deep dive into serious drama with Sundance Channel's engrossing, sober-minded "Rectify" (9 p.m. Monday), the story of a death row inmate who leaves prison on a technicality. It's not easy viewing, but this series offers smart, challenging, character-driven drama at its finest.
Created and written by Ray McKinnon, Sundance is promoting "Rectify" as a show from some of the same producers involved in "Breaking Bad," though not "Bad" writer, Vince Gilligan, who really is the essence of that show. It's an important distinction because the brilliant "Breaking Bad" is often darkly funny; there's little humor in "Rectify," where the mood is suffocating when it's not sweltering. Both are a natural fit for a show that includes prison flashbacks and is set in a small Southern town, Paulie, Ga.
The six-episode first season -- two episodes air Monday with the remaining four hours airing Mondays at 10 p.m. through May 20th -- begins as soft-spoken Daniel Holden (Aden Young) is released after 20 years in almost complete isolation on death row for the rape and murder of a classmate when he was a teenager. His sentence was vacated after DNA testing despite his confession to the crime.
Through the first four hours sent for review, it's not clear if Daniel was guilty. The show tries to muddy those waters by introducing other characters who were at the scene.
If "Rectify" aired on a broadcast network, odds are there would be no question that Daniel was innocent and he'd be a likable chap who had been done wrong by the system. But in this atmospheric, slow-paced series, Daniel is kind of a weirdo.
He speaks at a press conference after his release and makes everyone uncomfortable with laconic, serious pronouncements; he stares at a dinner knife intently; he stares into a Big Gulp intently; he sits cross-legged in the middle of a baseball field.
A lot of time is spent putting viewers in Daniel's place, allowing us to see the world through his eyes. It's a relatable way to show just how much has changed while he was in prison. A video store opened and closed during his incarceration. He's flummoxed by the size of Wal-Mart.
"I don't think I want to become computer literate; mobile phone literate either," Daniel tells his perpetually fretting mother (J. Smith Cameron).
Flashbacks take viewers back into Daniel's small, blindingly white cell for scenes that attempt explain what's going through his head after his release.
Daniel is a fascinating character but his enigmatic nature also makes him exasperating to watch. So it's a relief that the show also develops a strong supporting cast, including Daniel's devoted sister, Amantha (Abigail Spencer); Ted (Clayne Crawford), the self-absorbed stepbrother Daniel's never met and Ted's kindhearted wife, Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), whose feelings for Daniel seem to border on the inappropriate.
If there's one major criticism of "Rectify," it's the show's approach to Daniel's legal circumstances. The pilot muddies up the specifics of Daniel's case and introduces several characters -- the town sheriff, a state senator -- who are intent on re-trying Daniel. The will-he-go-back-to-prison aspect of the story seems like a plot hole. Either his DNA is one of the samples on the victim's underwear, which would prove his involvement in the crime and likely prevent his release; or his DNA is not on the underwear, which would exonerate him free and clear. This lapse sticks out like a sore thumb in a show that's intent on creating a realistic environment.
Viewers who come to "Rectify" with "The Killing" fresh in their memory need to adjust their expectations. This show's makers don't see it as a whodunit. Mr. McKinnon, who is also an actor (he played Lincoln "Linc" Potter on "Sons of Anarchy"), refused to say whether "Rectify" will eventually reveal whether Daniel was guilty-- although he hinted at an answer.
"Why do we wrongly convict people? A lot of times, we want order over justice or the illusion of order, and that was one of the things that intrigued me about this story," Mr. McKinnon said during a January press conference in Pasadena, Calif. "We want to have closure as human beings, and in our storytelling, we want to have closure. I'm not so sure I want to abide by those conventions.
"The more interesting part of the story was not who did it, but how does a man reacclimate himself back to this world when he's been in a box for 19 years, more than half of his life?" he continued. "How does a family reinvent themselves when this person literally or figuratively comes back from the dead? A lot of this story is about the human dynamics between the family and Daniel and between [the family and] the town as opposed to a whodunit."
From his vantage point, the show's focus is the search for the central character's identity.
"He's partly formed by 19 years on death row," Mr McKinnon said. "So even if he wasn't a killer before or an amoral person before, his growing up on death row obviously changed him. And that's the ongoing tension of the show: 'Who is Daniel Holden?'"
Sundance is carried on Comcast's Channel 165 (or 164 on former Adelphia systems), Verizon Fios TV's Channel 392, DirecTV's Channel 558 and DISH Network's Channel 358. Armstrong does not carry Sundance.
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.