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'Rectify' Out-Subtles 'The Leftovers' For Summer's Best Slow Burn

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RECTIFY
Aden Young as Daniel Holden in 'Rectify.' | Sundance Channel

The summer brought us two mildly post-apocalyptic dramas that weren't particularly interested in addressing the core questions baked into their premises.

"The Leftovers," which debuted in June on HBO, has chronicled a small slice of a world still reeling from the Sudden Departure of 2 percent of its population. Though co-creator Damon Lindelof worked on the mythology-intensive "Lost," it's clear that "The Leftovers" has different goals from the ABC show, and solving an elaborate puzzle isn't one of them.

"Rectify," which just concluded its stellar second season on the Sundance Channel, is about the fallout from a more personal kind of apocalypse, one that nearly destroyed a community and several families in it. In the first episode of "Rectify's" debut season, Daniel Holden was released from Death Row for a crime that occurred 20 years ago (and his legal troubles aren't over: Ongoing wrangling about his case has occupied parts of both seasons). The show has filled in a few of the blanks about what Holden did or didn't do on the night a young woman died, but a lot of ambiguity still lingers.

Neither of these shows is all that interested in plot for its own sake, which is just fine. They're both examinations of how people do and don't move on from nightmares, how tragedy shapes and twists people, and how individuals extract meaning from a world that seems bent on withholding it. Psychological density is the goal.

Summer felt like the right time for these shows; you can ponder them while sitting in an old porch swing and watching lightning bugs wander through the yard. These were character studies that, like an aimless drive in hot weather, cover a lot of territory without a specific destination. That can be an oddly comforting narrative strategy, when it's handled right. That's how life is: It's a string of mundane tasks littered with a few Large Events, and most of us learn that the big questions we ask of the universe usually have ambiguous answers.

So riddle me this: Why is the show about the guy who was on Death Row and might have to go back there so much more worthy and wonderful than the show about millions of missing people?

Big parts of the answer come down to curiosity and specificity. "Rectify" wants to know everything about its finely drawn characters. It wants to examine, rigorously yet gently, all the things that bring them both joy and despair. It's deeply interested in what makes Holden and his family members tick, and each one of them is realistically messy and complicated. As the second season progressed and filled out each person's psychological backstory, Holden and his friends, family and enemies grew into some of the most fascinating characters on television.

Much of "Rectify" hinges on Holden's quest to determine whether or not he's a good man -- a chicken-and-egg dilemma that has no definitive answer. Yet "Rectify" has made this somewhat circular journey spectacularly compelling through a series of specific incidents and choices. Holden attended a backwoods rave, experienced tender moments of intimacy, and had an intense, drug-fueled trip down memory lane with a squirrelly friend who was present on the night that local girl died. Throughout, Holden wondered -- as did I -- just what depths and heights of behavior he was capable of.

Like "The Leftovers," "Rectify" had 10 hours to tell its story this season, and one of the show's most impressive accomplishments was the way that the quiet world-building and storytelling of the first eight hours led to the simply transfixing final two hours. Slowly, but with a great deal of care, the writers led up to series of decisions that would have an enormous effect on all the characters. (I won't supply any more detail as to what happened, because Season 1 is on Netflix and Season 2 is available on demand and online, and I want you to see the subtle, disciplined intelligence of "Rectify" for yourself.)

Judicious flashbacks to Holden's jail cell showed the viewer just how cramped and claustrophobic his world had been for decades; after his release, his life was filled with wide-open spaces, but he's not quite sure how to fill them. "Rectify" is deliberate, and it's not afraid to make moments linger; you have to attune yourself to its mindset if you want to wring the maximum enjoyment from it. And yet somehow it feels participatory in a way that the weighty HBO drama does not.

Every "Rectify" episode involves just enough incident to shed light on its characters' choices and dilemmas, and when Holden (Aden Young), his sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) or his step-brother Teddy (Clayne Crawford) contemplate a landscape or a shaft of sunlight, we have a pretty good idea what they're thinking about. Creator Ray McKinnon and his writers have sketched in sufficient character details while leaving viewers to fill in the blanks -- and that's possible because the actors, directors and writers have given us enough to go on. We're not in the dark regarding what these people care about or what troubles them.

If you've watched "Friday Night Lights," you probably first thought of Buddy Garrity as a buffoonish good ol' boy whose false bonhomie was grating to the point of being oppressive. As was the case with almost everyone in Dillon, Texas, that portrait was substantially deepened within a season or two, and I already feel that level of intimacy with the "Rectify" characters, even Teddy, a once-brash younger version of Garrity. Like Holden, the outwardly successful Teddy struggles with the question of what it means to be a "real man" and whether his role is to provide financial or emotional comfort. Holden and Teddy's dual struggles with emotional and physical violence provided a haunting counterpoint all season long, and Teddy's self-absorption has been offset by heartbreaking layers of confusion.

"The Leftovers," by contrast, still seems unsure of what it wants to do or who its characters are, which shouldn't be the case as the season finale looms into view.

Executive producers Tom Perrotta (who wrote the book of the same name) and Lindelof have assembled a fine cast, but both the tone of the drama and its characters feel strangely undifferentiated. Each character is stranded in his or her own bubble of sadness, but most of these bubbles are indistinguishable from each other, and the unrelentingly dour tone of the story makes it all too easy to tune out. It won't be the first or last show to make this mistake, but those making "The Leftovers" seem to think that profundity is best expressed through unrelenting misery.

The all-flashback Aug. 24 outing was a change of pace, sort of, but just reinforced the idea that many of these people were unhappy before the Departure. No shocker there, but I did appreciate all the heavy-handed symbolism (the ticking metronome, the cracked "My Hero" mug, the trapped deer -- what could these things mean?)

It's not that the attempt to convey the dimensions of despair and depression are ill-advised -- far from it. But "Rectify" makes me care when its characters are experiencing difficult emotions, as well as the occasional moment of giddiness or release. Nine hours into "The Leftovers," the interior and exterior lives of many of the characters seem as blank as the pamphlets from the Guilty Remnant, a post-apocalyptic cult.

"The Leftovers" is a show that clearly, even desperately, wants to explore meaningful themes, but too many elements of the show still feel generic, and its habit of bypassing believable character development has led it to flounder and flail. Critics I respect have made intelligent cases for the HBO drama as a metaphor for depression or grief. Intellectually, I understand where those critics coming from. As a viewer, however, I just do not buy several elements the show is selling.

First of all, I call bullshit on the Guilty Remnant.

Maybe this element of the story worked in the book; perhaps the novel made the psychology, the backgrounds and the choices of GR members compelling and believable. The show has largely failed in that regard. I do think that people would do weird stuff in the wake of an event like the Departure, but would there really be as many cults and charismatic gurus, like the show's resident hugger, Wayne? Possibly, but I tend to believe people would work out their grief and confusion in a host of different ways, and that cults and gurus would just be part of an array of coping strategies.

But even if I accept that the GR is part of this world, why would so many people pledge their lives to this particular set of beliefs (smoke a lot, wear white, don't speak, find ways to remind people of the Departure)? That belief set doesn't seem all that compelling as divergent life choices go. As to the promise of existence as a blank slate -- well, clearly, the prominent GR characters we've seen still have thoughts, emotions and motivation, so that element of the group's supposed appeal feels false. Ultimately, if Laurie Garvey (Amy Brenneman), a central figure in the narrative, left her own daughter to go silently smoke somewhere, it would have to be for a very good reason, but the foundations of the GR come off as flimsy and unsatisfying.

Outside of Laurie's arc, the fact that members of the GR don't speak, for the most part, presents a very real narrative problem. They do a lot of objectionable things -- which would be fine, if I at least understood their reasons and really believed they bought into them. Casting Ann Dowd and Brenneman in prominent GR roles was smart: They're great actors and they've done their best with what they were given. But the writing for "The Leftovers" has failed to make the GR philosophy cohere as a believable option, even for damaged, broken people.

Why did Liv Tyler's character, Megan, join the GR? I still don't know. What's the appeal to her, specifically? Not sure. Why did she go from hating the GR, who stalked her, to choosing the GR as a way of life? No idea; it just sort of happened. Why would Megan endure being slapped by Brenneman's character? Believable human behavior from Meg would involve saying, "You know what? Screw this. I'm out." There may well be reasons that Megan put up with that slap and everything else, but so far the show has not provided a plausible one.

Patti's Episode 8 discussion with Kevin regarding the GR's goals is a typical example of "The Leftovers'" reach exceeding its grasp: It was a bunch of circular non-answers that led nowhere. What, in the eyes of the GR, would constitute sufficient non-forgetting by society at large? Does the GR want everyone on Earth to end up a blank slate, a dead-eyed nicotine addict, smoking and exhaling nihilism? Honestly, most self-respecting cults come up with a much better class of nonsense than that. And as a piece of writing, that confrontation was so much overwrought hooey.

The two episodes that featured the GR the least -- Episode 6 and Episode 9 -- were among the show's stronger outings (and Carrie Coon's Nora is by far the standout in this ensemble). But outside of the nicotine addicts and Nora, "The Leftovers" has a big problem, and it wears a badge and a perma-scowl.

I get that Kevin (Justin Theroux) is adrift, confused and driven to attempts to assert some control over his environment. The problem is that this description applies to many, if not most, fictional characters. Kevin's character seems to have been assembled from a kit, and his mid-life crisis isn't all that interesting. TV is full of anti-heroes who act out, cheat and make bad choices. By this point, it'd be nice to have been offered one or two distinctive reasons to stick with this version of the type. ("But he's in pain!" Again, that's a significant percentage of characters in every story ever.)

The lack of believable characters who are worth sticking with is especially frustrating, given how fascinating many of "Lost's" characters often were, even when the show's storytelling mechanics were spinning out of control. Awful things happened to characters on "Lost," yet you felt for them. It's hard to work up much sympathy for any of the miserable people on "The Leftovers," especially when the more sprawling episodes suffer from "Game of Thrones" syndrome -- so many characters to service, so little time.

Kevin gets the most screen time, and yet I'm less interested in his self-pity than I was when the show began, maybe because he really just has two modes: confusion and anger. Like other characters on "The Leftovers," he inhabits his cocoon of pain, occasionally trying to learn a big lesson: Life is hard. It can be difficult to connect with others. The universe can be randomly cruel. These insights aren't new, of course, but "Rectify" finds specific situations that make them heartbreaking. "The Leftovers" takes these insights, adds an overwrought soundtrack, sprinkles in a few weird incidents that may mean something (or not), tosses in some portentous symbols, and presents this undercooked stew as Serious Art.

Perhaps if "The Leftovers" varied its tonal palette, drilled down into the lives of its characters and occasionally gave them something to hope for, it might be worth watching next season. Maybe lightening up would help its more poignant moments resonate. But next year, if its characters continue to display the same glum lack of curiosity about their own lives, honestly, what is the point?

Ryan McGee and I talked about "The Leftovers," "Rectify," "The Honourable Woman" and the recent kerfuffle over "The Sopranos" on this week's Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.

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