The events of the first season of “Rectify,” the Sundance Channel drama about Death Row inmate Daniel Holden's return to freedom after his conviction is overturned, took place over a single week following Daniel's release. It was a short period of time and yet – longer than a “24” season, but much shorter than a “Mad Men” season – as Daniel tells a friend, “Every day felt like a lifetime.”
For some viewers of “Rectify,” which begins its second season tonight at 9, that elongated sense of time will be exactly why they love it. The show doesn't move from incident to incident the way virtually every other show on television does, but rather stops to marinate in the sticky Southern atmosphere and in the complicated emotions engendered by Daniel's release among his family, his enemies, and even himself. It is a show in which you would be hard-pressed to describe the plot of any individual episode to someone who hadn't seen it – often the best way to differentiate one from the next is to describe which object Daniel spent a long time staring at (down feathers? flip-flops?) – and yet the experience of watching it feels so full and dense that it is as if everything possible happened in it.
Of course, for many viewers that slowed-down, ethereal storytelling style will be an invitation to fire up the DVR and find anything with a faster pace and a more eventful style – in other words, virtually any other show on television, especially now that the “American Idol” results show is going away.
The approach “Rectify” creator Ray McKinnon has taken with this wonderful show is essentially anti-commercial. On virtually any channel but Sundance, the story would be about Daniel (Aden Young) seeking justice for the men who actually killed his girlfriend, and any sense of the emotional toll of decades in prison would simply be a bonus to that revenge story. Here, McKinnon demonstrates only the vaguest interest in what actually happened to the girl – and it remains entirely possible that Daniel played a role in the crime, even if DNA analysis got him out of prison.
Instead, the show is about moments that seem so small to us, but that are enormous to a man in Daniel's situation, and to the people in his orbit. When he rides his old dirt bike, gawks at the wide selection of beach footwear at the local Walmart, or simply sits down for breakfast with his mother Janet (J. Smith-Cameron) and sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer), it's with the confusion and wonder of a man who did not expect to be here and can't entirely believe that this is real. (Both the first season and this new one dabble in both dream sequences and hints of the metaphysical; most of Daniel's encounters are presented as fact, but every now and then something happens that may be happening only in his mind.) Because Young has such a fascinating screen presence in his stoicism, and because the actors around him are so good at portraying how overwhelmed with joy and/or anxiety his loved ones are at his return, the lingering moments don't feel wasted, but like the entire point.
It's also one of the most spiritually rich and thoughtful shows anywhere on television at the moment. The first season dealt at length with Daniel's born-again sister-in-law Tawney (Adelaide Clemens, wonderful) trying to save his soul. On 99 shows out of 100, Tawney would be presented as a naive fool, or a hypocrite; here, her concern for this relative stranger is entirely genuine, and the show takes her faith seriously. In the new season, we see her discussing Daniel with her Bible study group, and even the minor characters around her are given respect and complex shading.
Season one ended with Daniel being beaten half to death by his alleged victim's brother and his friends, and the new episodes do not run away from that. Daniel's out of action for a bit, which would ordinarily be a problem on a series so carried by its central character. But through dreams, prison flashbacks and other devices, we still get plenty of Daniel, and the supporting characters have taken on enough depth to carry things while Daniel heals. Daniel's stepbrother (and Tawney's husband) Ted Jr. (Clayne Crawford) takes on a bigger role, and what had once been one of the show's least nuanced characters here becomes someone very complex, and surprisingly sympathetic. Ted Jr.'s not a particularly nice guy, but you get to feel the weight of Daniel's return on him just as much as on the rest of the family.
Though I was eager to have the show come back, I did wonder how long McKinnon could let the show run before the leisurely style turned into self-parody. (“Oh, wow, now Daniel can't stop staring at all the individual flossing options at the local CVS!”) Three episodes into this longer second season (which will have 10 installments rather than last year's six), the premise, the pace and the art film approach all feel eminently durable. This isn't a show I would necessarily want seven seasons of, but I'm grateful to have it back for now. There is nothing else on television quite like it, and for those who have the patience to sit through Daniel's still, slow journey, the emotional rewards are enormous.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com
NOTE: As was the case last year, this isn't the sort of show I find especially conducive to weekly write-ups, so I'll revisit it at the end of the season.