Tonight at 9/8c, Sundance Channel follows up the well-received Top of the Lake with another, equally compelling miniseries that offers almost an antidote to TV’s more bustling, “Scandal-paced” dramas.
Created by Ray McKinnon (The Accountant, Sons of Anarchy‘s Lincoln Potter) and executive-produced by Breaking Bad‘s Mark Johnson and Melissa Benrstein, Rectify follows Daniel Holden (played by Aden Young) as he is released from a 20-year stint on Death Row for the rape and murder of a local girl in a small Georgia town, due to new (if not exonerating) DNA evidence.
Having been in near-complete isolation for two decades, Daniel returns home almost a stranger to his family and a tight-knit community that is largely resigned to holding him guilty for the long-ago crime. And as he dips his toe back into this society so unfamiliar to him, the series takes its time — and then some — to explore every nuance of his new existence, oft viewed through the eyes of his sister and champion, Amantha (Abigail Spencer, Mad Men).
But whereas Top of the Lake had a slightly more conventional mystery serving as its narrative engine, the truth about Daniel’s role in the rape/murder is touched on here and there in Rectify, yet is almost — almost — incidental to the in-depth character studies at hand.
“The hope is you’ll be so invested in the characters that they could really do anything, much like with some of my favorite shows,” says Spencer. “Like, Mad Men is very much a show about private lives, and Ray [McKinnon] talks about this show being about people’s private lives, so the pursuit is, ‘Who is Daniel Holden? Who is Amantha Holden? Who is Tawney?'” Played by Adelaide Clemens, Tawney is introduced a the kind-hearted wife of Daniel’s “new” stepbrother Ted (A Walk to Remember‘s Clayne Crawford), though she evolves into a confidante for confused, closed-off Daniel.)
“Ray’s such a wonderful storyteller,” Spencer continues. “So I would say this is long-form fiction, like reading a really good novel. Our first season is really the ‘creation story’ that sets up a more epic tale. And like epic tales, our characters go through so much and change so much.”
Bruce McKinnon (Past Life), who plays Daniel’s stepfather/Ted’s dad, echoes Spencer’s sentiment, saying that in these first six episodes, “There are definite character arcs, and there are definite surprises [with regard to the mystery].” But as for where things leave off at the close of this opening run, “It’s like when you’re walking on a trail in the mountains, and all of a sudden, poof, it branches out in all these directions,” McKinnon says. “There are all these different areas to explore.”
Though Daniel reenters the outside world obviously addled by his prison isolation, he alternates between moments of simple-minded bewilderment at the years he has missed (in one sad scene, he presents a store clerk with a bottle of Smartwater and asks, “Does this work?”) and instances where he proves all too keen an observer (such as when, during a bit of golf course chit-chat, he subtly calls out Ted and others on their lookee-loo leanings).
“It is a small town, so we all knew that girl [who died]. Everybody knows everybody, so [the unsolved crime] is a very important thing,” McKinnon says. “It’s not incidental, and it will play more as we go. And as you get more and more into the show, you see more of this Twin Peaks version of [The Andy Griffith Show‘s] Mayberry, with all these wonderful characters.”
But pending any Season 2 renewal, “I think the piece stands on its own, as a piece of art,” Spencer attests. “But I [as Amantha] don’t feel any resolution from it. Instead, it made me go, ‘Oh my gosh, I just want to know more!'”