Rectify is my new all-time favorite TV drama. You haven’t heard of it? That’s understandable; it is a Sundance TV original series. But the first two seasons (of three so far) are streaming on Netflix. A fourth and final season is in the works. Lest you think I shift my favorites frequently, the TV drama it displaces as my favorite is Hill Street Blues (which went off the air in 1987).
Rectify is the story of Daniel Holden (Aden Young) who was convicted as a teenager of raping and murdering his girlfriend. Having spent half of his life (and all his adult life) on death row, he is released after conflicting DNA evidence is revealed. He is not exonerated, but the court determines there is enough doubt that he should be released until a decision is made about retrying him. He returns to his childhood home where his mother still lives with her new husband (Daniel’s father died while Daniel was in prison). Also key parts of the story involve his sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) who has believed in his innocence all these years, his step-father’s adult son Teddy (Clayne Crawford) who is a bit threatened by Daniel’s return, and Teddy’s wife Tawny (Adelaide Clemens), a very sincere, but somewhat naïve, Christian.
He is very much out of step with the world, having spent the last nineteen years in a death row cell. As he tries to adapt to his new freedom, he is in a very awkward position. Most of the community still consider him a murderer. The prosecutor who sent him to jail is now a state senator and very powerful in the town. The current sheriff was a young officer when the crime occurred. He is suspicious of Daniel, but he really is concerned with justice being served—whatever that means in this case. Over the first two seasons Daniel begins to make his way through the obstacles of family, community, and his own understanding of the world.
While in prison, Daniel read extensively—especially philosophy and theology, so he has a very different perspective on the world than most of the other characters. He doesn’t seem to harbor anger at the (possible) injustice that has been done to him. In his search for deeper meanings to what has happened, Tawny takes him to her church to meet her pastor, who is a bit uncomfortable in Daniel’s presence. Throughout the show, Tawny, while not perfect by any means, tries to model grace and acceptance in relationship to Daniel, even when that brings her into conflict with her husband.
What pushes this show to the top of my list is the way it allows us to think in a variety of ways about the situation. There are legal questions, but actually, those are more of a minor subplot most of the time. The real questions deal with family and community, with compassion and forgiveness, with justice and redemption, and even with the place of God in the lives of people. It is never preachy. It never makes things seem too deep. But it does take us out of the intellectual shallows that exemplify most TV fare.
Photos courtesy Sundance TV