TV review: the human condition, not crime drama, adds tension to ‘Rectify’

As a TV experience, Sundance Channel’s first original drama, Rectify, is frustrating, yet satisfying; painfully slow, yet utterly absorbing. These contradictions may be tough to handle, but they do create a TV show that feels startlingly unlike anything else that is currently airing.

Rectify, the story of a seemingly-innocent man released from prison after serving 19 years on Death Row for the murder of his high school girlfriend, is dramatic only in the strictest sense of the word. This is theatre drama more than TV drama. Rectify swaps painted scenery for beautiful on-location shots of rural Georgia, but still an overwhelming number of its scenes consist of two characters talking at length.

The result is a lot of speeches, a lot of philosophy, a lot of staring into the middle distance. Rectify’s dialogue is, too often, unwieldy, yet sometimes it is amazingly precise. When one character remarks, “It’s the beauty, not the ugly, that hurts the most,” it hits you in the stomach. That may be the show’s whole mantra, summed up in just 10 words.

Another of Rectify’s most laser-sharp moments of dialogue comes when unassuming young housewife, Tawney, reveals that thunder “makes me think of God, but not in a bad way.” Somehow that single sentence reveals everything you need to know about Tawney, her outlook and experiences. We don’t know anything about Tawney’s history and little about her inner life, yet she feels truly- and wholly-characterized.

Although its premise makes it sound like a crime drama, Rectify is really a show about character. In a TV landscape where every other show frontloads its narrative with way too much character exposition, Rectify does the opposite: it deliberately withholds character detail.

Of course, this is partly to keep the viewer guessing over whether protagonist Daniel really did murder his girlfriend. (There’s not much to guess about, in my opinion; this is a classic “good man put through a fire” story.) Yet it also succeeds in drawing tension out of the smallest moments.

When self-serving tire salesman Teddy reveals unexpected, unwavering loyalty to his wife, it comes as a surprise on par with a dramatic car chase. By eking out character information slowly, Rectify reveals that its real mystery lies not in “is Daniel a murderer?” but in “what is the human condition?”

Unsurprisingly, although it is frequently poignant, Rectify is also hard work. It’s desperately sad and sometimes its slow pace does feel unwarranted. Ultimately, season one of Rectify feels like the prologue to what could be an amazing series. I have a feeling season two (airing next year) may be where Rectify comes into its own.

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