May 21, 2013



When people say that an original film or television series has the feel of a novel, it’s usually meant as a high compliment.  (The Wire is probably the definitive example of this in television.)  But Sundance Channel’s first scripted series RECTIFY was a reminder that not all novels, however earnest and well-meant, are worth reading.  The six hours of Rectify were like a novel, all right–the kind where you find yourself first checking how many pages are left before the end of the chapter, then guiltily skipping pages, and finally deciding that life is just too short.

Like many a self-serious first novel, too, Rectify garnered praise far out of proportion to its quality, from the kind of critics who equate tedium with depth.  (Andy Greenwald in Grantland referred respectfully to its “subtle, unhurried embrace.”)  In this case, the emperor’s clothes had barely a stitch of plot or even character, just a lot of portentous, grim mood and setting held together with insistent ambiguity and dollops of religious imagery.  There was certainly a great deal of talent put into the show, but not the kind that includes editing or focus or even finding a point–just a polished collection of indie movie tropes.

There’s not much to summarize about the season finale episode of Rectify, written and directed by its creator Ray McKinnon, because there was no particular climax or resolution.  The show as a whole took us through the first 6 days (probably not a coincidence that it’s the number of days God took to create the world) after Daniel Holden (Aden Young) was released from prison following 19 years on death row for a rape and murder.  He was freed because the DNA found on the victim turned out not to match his, but since the girl had been the victim of a gang crime, it didn’t mean Daniel was innocent.  You might have expected some story exploring his actual guilt or innocence, but you’d be wrong, other than in the existential sense that Daniel was enveloped in a morass of guilt that may or may not have been because he committed the crime.  (The first episode of the series ended with someone who appeared to be one of the killers committing suicide, but that was the last we saw of him or his apparent accomplice until the latter sent the former’s body floating down the local river–arms outstretched as though he was being crucified–and then washed himself, baptism-style, in the water.)  Angry townspeople who believed Daniel guilty put a bomb in his family’s mailbox and then beat him half to death (and urinated on him), an attack Daniel took stoically, as he took just about everything.

Rectify only roused itself from its torpor when Daniel’s sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer), who’d fought for his prison release (her affair with Daniel’s lawyer had no particular dramatic point either), was on screen, or when it focused on the show’s two low-grade villains.  One was the State Senator (Michael O’Neill) who had originally prosecuted Daniel and now insisted he be put back on trial, and the other was Daniel’s stepbrother–Daniel’s mother (J. Smith-Cameron) had remarried while he was in prison–Ted Jr (Clayne Crawford), a selfish and insensitive clod who was mean to his almost-literally angelic wife Tawney (the gifted Adelaide Clemens) and who was a relentless douchebag to Daniel.  (At the end of episode 5, it seemed as though Daniel had violently assaulted Ted, but the attack turned out to be much less serious than it appeared.)   By the end of the season, neither of the men had actually done anything–it wasn’t even clear if Daniel was going to be retried, let alone whether he deserved to be.

The series worked hard to convey the feeling of dissociation that Daniel felt once out of prison, but Aden Young’s fully-committed performance made that look, as often as not, like slow-wittedness.  There were surreal sequences like Daniel’s encounter with a goat-thief who may or may not have been real, and flashbacks to his time in prison, and there were, oh my, plenty of religious and spiritual references.  It all felt like the first draft of a script or the first cut of a movie, that desperately needed to be cut down to feature length.

Since Sundance Channel doesn’t report its ratings, it’s not clear how many people watched Rectify, but it seems safe to assume the number was low.  That wasn’t the point for Sundance, though, which spent the past few seasons sitting around while it seemed like every other cable channel was leaping into original scripted programming, a rather embarrassing position for a network named after America’s most celebrated film festival.  Rectify won the network a measure of the respect it was looking for, and the show has been renewed for a second season.  Maybe next year something will actually happen.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."