"It's not UN-weird," says the solemn and seriously disoriented Daniel Holden (a revelatory Aden Young), who's adjusting to life outside of prison after 19 years on death row, to which he was sentenced as a teen for a murder that new evidence suggests he may not have committed. Impeccably written and acted, quietly suspenseful, almost unbearably sad in its aching poignancy, Sundance Channel's six-hour drama series Rectify explores the impact of freedom on the overwhelmed Daniel, his grateful yet apprehensive family and the hostile Georgia small town that still condemns him.
Created by actor-turned-screenwriter Ray McKinnon, Rectify is Sundance's second consecutive home run. With its two-hour premiere (Monday, 9/8c) arriving in the wake of the exotic, hypnotic, New Zealand-set Top of the Lake, this deliberately paced and delicately grave character study is on the surface a much more mundane story. But as the damaged and emotionally tentative Daniel reflects, in his hushed and haunted manner, "Mundane is calming and soothing. Mundane isn't out of the ordinary. When everything is out of the ordinary, it can be too much sometimes." For Daniel, just being assaulted by the choice and surplus of a big-box store is too much.
Nothing about Rectify is ordinary, starting with the empathetic performances, including Abigail Spencer as Daniel's spitfire sister Amantha, who fought for his freedom with the help of Northern lawyer Jon Stern (Luke Kirby) and is having her own uneasy homecoming from Atlanta, and J. Smith Cameron as his welcoming but wary mother Janet. She was widowed and remarried while Daniel was "away," creating new family tensions, especially with a resentful stepbrother (Clayne Crawford) who passive-aggressively pokes and prods Daniel, stirring up vivid memories from prison that add to his "state of constant anticipation." We feel it too, a pervasive sense of dread that the simmering tensions in this town will eventually explode. Rectify isn't particularly story-driven, though there are intimations of a conspiracy of silence regarding the long-ago rape-murder that sealed Daniel's fate. The mystery here isn't a whodunit as much as a puzzle of what makes Daniel tick.
Everyone walks on eggshells around the outwardly gentle and politely withdrawn Daniel except his stepbrother's beguiling wife Tawney (Adelaide Clemens, another discovery), a deeply devout beauty who sees in Daniel a soul worth saving. "You're above things. Like you're pure," she says, to which he mumbles, "Far from that." Though Rectify is not a story of easy salvation, it takes Tawney's faith unusually seriously, indicative of the compassion shown to each of these characters.
As Daniel, Young has a coiled intensity that is mesmerizing and heartbreaking. He's a fragile enigma, a deep philosophical thinker (he spent much of his time behind bars with nose buried in Great Books) who knows everything about life but how to live it, having spent so much of his life awaiting death. He even admits at one point, "I'm not even sure I'm alive," wondering if any of what's happening now is real.
In his most heart-wrenching confession, Daniel reveals, "It does something to you not to be touched in any positive way for so long. You begin to vacillate between being repelled by touch and seeking it out in any form, even the most negative." Rectify is touching in so many ways, and the only drawback is that six hours is not nearly enough to tell this story, with an open-ended conclusion that's more disturbing than satisfying. Let's hope Sundance wastes no time commissioning a sequel to the most absorbing, unsettling and unexpectedly humane new drama I've seen on TV so far this year.
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MORE DRAMA: My current other favorite new Monday drama is A&E's bizarrely entertaining Bates Motel (10/9c). Last week may have contained the best moment yet, as Norman (Freddie Highmore) confesses his fears about crazy mama Norma (ferocious Vera Fermiga) right to her face, and she throws it back at him: "I scare you?" (Hee.) "There's something every mother dreams their children will tell them one day." Her guilt trips are epic, which should only intensity this week when bad-boy brother Dylan tries to get Norman to move out of the "murder house" and bunk with him. ... As Fox's The Following airs its penultimate episode (9/8c), we can't help wondering how many more disposably dopey good guys are left, given that the latest FBI boss man was just taken down by a psycho wielding a DEADLY HATPIN! Anyway, as the Hardy crew gets ready to storm the Mansion of Mad Followers, Psycho Joe executes an escape plan that involves his followers creating a diversion that puts (you'll never guess) another FBI official in danger. ... In an episode delayed a week by news coverage of the Boston tragedy, NBC's Revolution (10:01/9:01c) picks up with the embattled Capt. Neville (Giancarlo Esposito) bolting from the Monroe camp, leaving paranoia in his wake. ... And ABC's Castle (10:01/9:01c) performs its own Boston-related episode shuffle, wisely postponing an episode involving a bomb scare and replacing it with one guest-starring Ioan Gruffudd (Ringer) as a charming billionaire Beckett is assigned to protect, triggering Castle's jealousy.
YOU CAN'T BELIEVE YOUR EYES: "We're going to mess with your mind," promises genial host Jason Silva, as National Geographic Channel's delightful new series Brain Games (9/8c) embarks on a series of visual experiments and tests that reveal how our brain plays tricks with us. In back-to-back episodes, we learn the limits of our peripheral vision among other aspects of how our eyes can deceive us when it comes to focus and misdirection, and then we get to play with the fault lines in our perception of time. There's even a card shark on hand — or as they call him, a "deception specialist" — to illustrate how easily we can be fooled. It's great, albeit humbling, fun to play along.
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