Monday, April 22, 2013

The Sundance Channel Moves Smartly to 'RECTIFY' Itself

Rectify is a constant process of discovery.
Aden Young Amazes as Ex-Con Daniel Holden.

First you'll discover that this enthralling new semi-series, which bows at 9 p.m. EST Monday, April 22 with two back-to-back episodes, is on the Sundance Channel. You probably have Sundance on your cable system. You probably didn't know it. Or, you just figured the channel was way too elitist-snooty for you. But given that this is the first Sundance-owned original scripted series in its history (and it's really, really good), it's worth some determined channel surfing to find.

Shortly thereafter you'll realize that the six-episode show's premise – prisoner released from Death Row after almost two decades on the basis of new DNA evidence, facing re-entry into a strange and unfamiliar new world – only sounds like the storyline you've seen oh, maybe a kajillion times before. (Wasn't DNA part of the plot in The Shawshank Redemption? Les Misérables? White Heat?) The genius of Rectify is how it takes one of the most well-worn themes in all the dramatic repertoire and makes it feel multilayered, textured – well, remarkably fresh and new.

Part of that is due to the creative team behind Rectify: creator-writer Ray McKinnon, the Southern-fried actor (Sons of Anarchy, Deadwood) and standout independent filmmaker, whose Georgia upbringing allows him to fully translate the rhythms and psyche of his small-town characters; and executive producers Melissa Bernstein and Mark Johnson, the team behind Breaking Bad, looking for another visionary challenge in light of Walter White's impending departure.

The other part of Rectify's aura of originality is due to perhaps its most impressive discovery of all – Aden Young, who will deconstruct any notions you may hold about what a leading man should be. A Toronto-born Australian actor (exactly how does that happen?), Young may be remembered from the movie Killer Elite or the TV miniseries The Starter Wife, but this is unquestionably his breakthrough performance. He is Daniel Holden, the unremarkable Georgia boy convicted of brutally raping and killing his teenage girlfriend, thrust after 19 years back into a world he doesn't understand and never expected to live in again.

One might expect the character in such a script to either race through the streets of his hometown with blood in his eyes, vowing to wreak vengeance on everyone who done him wrong, or grab some drugs and a hooker and disappear into a cheap hotel. Daniel Holden does neither. His every movement and thought is so measured, so controlled, so internal. He has become, as Morgan Freeman's character "Red" Redding explains in Shawshank, "an institutional man," and everything in his bright, loud new world is as confusing as it is frightening. It's a role that easily could be overplayed by a miscast actor, but Young's totally restrained performance lands note-perfect at every turn.
Some celebration: Daniel and his sister-in-law, Tawney.

Daniel doesn't return to his tiny Georgia town to gloat, or even with the determination to begin his life anew. He simply has no place else to go. And the townsfolk, in particular his family, are equally befuddled: they never thought he'd survive Death Row, much less walk among them again. His mother, Janet (J. Smith Cameron), is thrilled, but conflicted; other family members stew over what he might take away from their lives, but his younger sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer, Oz the Great and Powerful, who's outstanding here), believes in Daniel and his innocence wholeheartedly and becomes his translator for modern society.

As Amantha drives him around town to see the sights (both of them), she can't help herself from saying things that seem inappropriate to a man recently released from prison. "That's gallows humor, huh?" she asks. "We call it 'lethal injection' humor," Daniel responds. "It's more humane...but not as funny."

What's really not funny is the angry throng of powerful men, led by Sen. Roland Foulkes (Michael O'Neill), formerly the prosecutor who put Daniel away, who are obsessed with throwing him behind bars again. And for the touch of class any potentially successful series needs, Hal Holbrook provides the opposition to the anti-Daniel forces as his original defense attorney, Rutherford Gaines.

Rarely does such a simple story encompass so many intriguing subplots. Will Daniel's own family turn against him? Will Foulkes and his law-enforcement cronies find a way to reverse the technicality that set him free? Can he return to the family business? Will some good ol' boy try to kill him? And, not coincidentally, did he do the crime?

Daniel Holden has a lot of dangerous waters to navigate, and I think I'm going to enjoy taking the journey with him. On our Big Glowing Box scale of 1-10 remotes, I'm giving Rectify a 9. Seeing an old tale told an interestingly new way in the copycat world of television is praiseworthy all by itself. But in this era when it seems every drama wants you to embrace the antihero, Aden Young is worth discovering as well.

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