Sundance Channel’s “Rectify” is a six-part drama about a man who is released from a Georgia prison on a legal technicality after serving 19 years for a murder he may or may not have committed. As a TV show, it almost gets by on its looks alone.
Languid as a julep and beautifully shot, “Rectify” (premiering Monday night) takes place in that modern-day version of the rural American South that is mainly seen in television and movies, where the light is a little too gauzy and the twangy dialogue a little too elliptically portentous — like an issue of Southern Living magazine guest-edited by Tennessee Williams.
The show, created by Ray McKinnon, is the second project this spring from Sundance Channel that seems eager to test a new hybrid of programming, combining the appeal of low-budget independent cinema with the breathing room of a miniseries. Such work has already been christened by receptive critics and viewers as “slow television,” in which the usual questions and plot points (whodunit, for one) cede to a more ambiguous style. As such, a viewer ends up investing herself or himself in movies that are six or seven hours long.
This is a polite way of saying that “Rectify” can be a drag, just like its equally beguiling predecessor, “Top of the Lake,” a Sundance crime drama (of sorts) that was co-written and co-directed by filmmaker Jane Campion and starred Elisabeth Moss of “Mad Men” as a detective searching for a missing girl in the New Zealand wilderness.
“Top of the Lake” initially started off as a moody and deliberate mystery with a smartly feminist subtext. But by the time it wrapped up, it was difficult to overlook its redundancies and, in a finale that aired April 14, its unsatisfying and blunt conclusion. Visually, “Top of the Lake” never ceased to amaze, but it was at least two hours too long.
Still, both dramas suggest real potential for a new genre in post-idiot-box television, a category I’d call movie-of-the-many-weeks.
In “Rectify,” Aden Young stars as Daniel Holden, who went to death row as a young man in the early 1990s, convicted of the rape and murder of his girlfriend. The work of a civil rights attorney (Luke Kirby) gets Daniel, now 38, a judicial reprieve, which springs him from prison but leaves open the possibility of a retrial.
In real life, the work of groups such as the Innocence Project has freed many wrongfully convicted prisoners, whose stories make us all wonder what life must be like after the media attention dies down. (And it seems relevant to note how “Rectify” missed a real opportunity for diversity in TV casting, since, demographically, a disturbing number of such men have been black. Why not tell a story that reflects actual statistics?)
Daniel is reunited with a family he hardly knows anymore, sleeping once again in the bedroom he grew up in, fed and comforted by his mother (J. Smith Cameron) and stepfather (Bruce McKinnon). He is almost an alien there, discovering old objects anew, such as the Walkman and cassette tapes he once listened to. He is also an outcast, since most of his small-town neighbors still believe he’s guilty.
“Rectify” would quickly sputter and die if not for Young’s delicate and natural performance. Throughout much of the series, Daniel is mentally and emotionally adrift, lost in his thoughts and haunted by flashbacks of prison life. A less-skilled actor would overplay this. “I don’t know how you want me to be,” he tells his sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer), who loyally maintained his innocence. “I don’t even know if I’m alive.”
Early on, “Rectify” deceptively ropes us into the broader mystery: If Daniel didn’t murder the victim, who did? Why is the former county prosecutor, now a slimy state senator, so bent on getting him re-convicted? The instinct, as a viewer, is to put on your sleuthing cap and pay attention to clues.
That would be wrong. Halfway through, you’ll realize that “Rectify” is primarily a character study weighed down by its own ruminative sense of sullenness. It’s a gothic novella that is more concerned with Daniel’s inner spiritual struggle than with fresh evidence. His stepbrother Ted (Clayne Crawford) greets him with rueful suspicion, but his stepbrother’s wife, Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), is overcome with pity for this stranger in their midst, urging him to find Jesus. As “Rectify” builds, Daniel is more metaphorically flung into the desert, where he eventually has a hallucinatory encounter with a redneck version of the devil.
By which time the story seems to have lost interest in solving anything. If “Rectify” was winnowed down to the length of a feature film and shown at a festival, we could better judge whether or not it accomplishes what it set out to do. Delivered this way, as a meandering, weekly TV show (with commercial breaks), it has spread itself too thin.
(one hour) premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on Sundance Channel.