In my early days on the beat, NBC had an ad campaign encouraging people to watch summer reruns, promising, “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you!” In the age of Peak TV, that slogan seems less cynical than accurate. The rise of streaming services has put the bulk of TV history only a click or two away, which means that people are constantly discovering The Wire, or Arrested Development, or Terriers (sigh) for the very first time.
In lieu of a summer rewind this year, I wanted to offer up primers of shows you can stream, whether an older series available in full(*) or something current you can catch up on before its next season begins. So far, I’ve done a pair of current shows in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Halt and Catch Fire, plus completed shows in United States of Tara and Flight of the Conchords.
(*) Note: with these picks, I’m trying to skip the obvious stuff (Breaking Bad, The Wire, or even a lower-rated show I’ve written a ton about like Freaks and Geeksor Terriers) in favor of things I maybe haven’t been beating you over the head with for years, and/or that might not be in the top 100 from TV (THE BOOK), which I hear is available for pre-order now.
Now I want to talk about a show whose final season got a premiere date over the weekend, and which I will dearly miss when it’s gone, even though it seems to be ending at the right time: Rectify.
What is it? A drama, created by character actor Ray McKinnon (Deadwood, Sons of Anarchy) about Daniel Holden (Aden Young), who has spent his entire adult life on Death Row for the murder of his high school girlfriend, and is released when new DNA evidence overturns his conviction. Daniel returns to the small Georgia town where he grew up – and where everyone thinks he’s a murderer other than members of his own family (and not even all of them are sure) – trying to build a new life for himself at a time when he expected to be dead at the hands of the state. Daniel’s return creates friction for his sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer), his stepbrother Teddy (Clayne Crawford) and Teddy’s born-again wife Tanwey (Adelaide Clemens), his mother Janet (J. Smith-Cameron) and stepfather Ted (Bruce McKinnon), and for Sheriff Carl Daggett (JD Evermore), who begins looking into the details of Daniel’s case while being pressured by its former prosecutor-turned-politician, Roland Foulkes (Michael O’Neil), even as Daniel’s lawyer Jon Stern (Luke Kirby) fights to keep him free.
Where can I find it? The first three seasons, 22 episodes in all (6 in the first, 10 in the second, 6 in the third) are all streaming on Netflix (season 3 arrived today). The fourth and final season will debut on SundanceTV on October 26 at 10 p.m.
Where should I start? Begin at the beginning. There’s no slow period – at least not relative to every other period – and you need to go in order to fully appreciate the character relationships and arcs.
What are its strengths? Atmosphere, for starters.
Rectify can be a hard show to describe, because it’s not really about what it’s about. What I mean is, you hear that premise and assume it’s a legal drama and/or mystery about Daniel’s appeal, the attempts to put him back in prison, alternate suspects in the crime, etc. And those are all parts of the series. But McKinnon’s primary focus has always been on what the situation feels like for all involved: the struggle Daniel has to simply be back in the real world after so much time away, Amantha coming to grips with the way she’s put her life on hold for Daniel, etc. It moves incredibly slowly at times – the first season features lots of scenes that are just Daniel staring at things (down feathers falling out of a pillow, or a wall of flip-flops at a big box store) – but the pacing, the direction, and the gorgeous cinematography combine to make you feel like you’re right there with him and everyone else involved.
Rectify is also one of the most spiritually open and complex shows in recent memory, particularly in the friendship (and perhaps more) that develops between Daniel and Tawney. The series is always supportive of and generous about her faith, even as her desire to save the soul of this stranger in her own family causes great complications for both of them.
The performances are also exceptional. McKinnon wrote the lead role for his pal Walton Goggins, who was busy doing Justified by the time Rectify got made, but Young in no way comes across like a second choice. Because of his circumstance, Daniel often seems like an alien (McKinnon and Young have both cited The Man Who Fell to Earth as an influence), moving and speaking in a slow, mournful fashion that people around him don’t know what to make of, and his pain and confusion are palpable in Young’s acting. Clemens, Spencer, Crawford, and everyone else all get chances to shine as Daniel’s return forces each character to confront truths about themselves they didn’t want to know about.
What are its weakenesses? Your mileage will absolutely vary on this one. To many, the slowness and ethereal tone will be a complete turn-off where to me and others who watch, they’re a major part of why this is one of TV’s best dramas. (There is literally a subplot in season 3 about watching paint dry, and it’s wonderful.) Similarly, the show’s meandering level of interest in solving the case (mainly through a subplot featuring McKinnon’s fellow Deadwood alum Sean Bridgers as Trey, who was at minimum involved and may have done it instead of Daniel) will prove maddening to those expecting a more linear approach to things, even though the character work is what I care about most.
That said, no show is perfect. The series has never entirely gotten the hang of pacing itself out over an entire season – the two 6-episode years felt too rushed at the end, while the 10-episode second season was too elongated – and hopefully the decision to do 8 episodes for the upcoming final year will prove to be the bowl of porridge that’s just right.
I’m still not entirely sold. What else can you tell me? If the above doesn’t make Rectify sound like a show for you, it probably isn’t. It’s not for most people, as its tiny ratings can attest.
I could put in a clip here to try to sell you, but no moment from the show plays well out of context. It’s an experience, and one that I find to be incredibly powerful and thoughtful and transporting. But the spell may not work for you. It’s one of the best things on TV, and if you’re even slightly curious, give the first episode a sample. You’ll know by the end if you’re in or out.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org