Not too long ago, TV critics had to collectively chip away at some misperceptions about an excellent, emotionally acute drama.
Eventually, those who thought that "Friday Night Lights" glorified the questionable aspects of high school sports culture (an impression NBC did little to correct at first) came to understand that the show was about community, resilience and bittersweet moments that were designed to make grown men and women cry.
"Rectify" may need a similar sort of treatment from the media, even though the Sundance Channel has marketed the show in an honest and thoughtful way. But if you have the impression that this show about a man released from death row is dispiriting, depressing or needlessly violent, think again. "Rectify" is actually one of the most complicated and strangely uplifting shows on TV, and like "Friday Night Lights," it will put a lump in your throat if you stick with it.
I'm comparing "Rectify" to "FNL" for a whole bunch of reasons: They both feature Southern characters who are not stereotypes or one-dimensional yokels, and that is a rare state of affairs on television. Both shows' treatments of faith and belief is respectful and nuanced. Both programs are both about how small towns and working-class and middle-class families respond to complicated challenges -- another relative rarity on a TV scene where most characters are urban, well-to-do or both.
But most importantly, the framing devices -- football for "FNL," a haunting death-row stint for "Rectify" -- are used in wise and worthy ways. They exist to create opportunities for each show to delve deeply into subjects that are often deployed cynically or melodramatically in other mainstream entertainments. "FNL" and "Rectify" also share an emotional terrain and even an aesthetic vibe: They're both thoughtful shows that have a great deal of compassion for their characters, even as they quietly lay bare their flaws, mistakes and secrets.
Daniel Holden's past is no secret to anyone in the small town to which he returned after being released from Death Row. He went to jail years earlier for the murder of his girlfriend, but it's clear that there's much more to that story than the townsfolk are willing to acknowledge. (If you want to see the first season of "Rectify," which consists of six episodes, it's on Netflix in the U.S.)
In Season 2, "Rectify" continues to examine the violence in Daniel's past -- both what he has done and what has been done to him. These moments can be hard to watch at times, but that's mainly because Aden Young's performance makes it impossible not to care for this yearning, wounded man. Every single moment of what Daniel goes through registers.
Violence is everywhere on TV right now: In a very competitive landscape, it's the rocket fuel that many networks are using to try to draw more attention to their offerings. There are shows that explore the impulse toward and the effects of violence with nuance and intelligence, and I respect what those shows accomplish. But even so, the sheer glut of bloody acts, rapes and torture can be very difficult to bear. It doesn't help that otherwise smart shows sometimes use these elements in exploitative ways, and, in general, television is simply overusing murder, sexual assault and beatings to juice up its stories, so much so that it all begins to seem like background music. Shows must -- or think they must -- grow ever more baroque with pain and suffering just to get our attention. It's wearying.
And at times, there's something morally evasive about the spectacle, the elaborate aesthetics, the lack of follow-through after blood is spilled. All these elements can all serve to distance viewers from the reality of what human bodies and minds endure when they are brutalized and violated. Violent acts are not minor inconveniences or background music to the person being attacked or hurt. These acts extract real and often profound costs.
How does violence and isolation change people? Can we acknowledge our darkness and brutal instincts while finding a capacity for tenderness and love? Can the instinct toward punishment -- both mental and physical -- be transformed into a desire to dole out -- or accept -- forgiveness?
"Rectify" examines these deeper questions with such delicacy, restraint and cumulative power that I can't recommend it enough.
Season 2 is driven by an investigation into what occurred at the end of Season 1 (and I'm keeping things vague because I hope a lot of people will catch up with Season 1). That said, "Rectify" is not a plot-driven show, which is refreshing. It doesn't sag or lag, but it does have its own deliberate pace, which is easy to adjust to, I think, once you get used to it. The drama allows moments between people to linger, and it's got a wonderful cast that does justice to the material at every turn. As was the case with "Friday Night Lights," "Rectify" is good at depicting the difficulty that people have in communicating with each other and in establishing even basic kinds of connection. These aren't always articulate people, but their hearts are often full.
At one point, Daniel confides to a friend that life on the outside is too hard, too complicated. He doesn't think he's up to it. And yet he perseveres, as does his family. Something keeps him going -- is it hope? Wonder? Curiosity? Faith?
"Rectify" doesn't push for any one answer, and it's truthful about how difficult it can be to rebuild a shattered life and a broken family. But this wonderful, resonant show clearly has a deep belief in the power of redemption and connection.
If you don't believe me, see for yourself. Please.
"Rectify" returns 9 p.m. ET Thursday on Sundance Channel.
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