UnRevenge Porn: How ‘Rectify’ is Changing the Rural Mystery Landscape

The sleeper hit of the Slow TV movement gets weird.

Aiden Young in Rectify. (Sundance)

Aden Young in Rectify. (Sundance)

A man stands on death row twenty years for the death of his girlfriend, (some of) his family proclaiming his innocence. Then, because of a technicality, the man is let back into the world, into his rural Georgia community, and immediately sets about trying to, well, not do much, actually. At least not by the standards of most prison dramas we watch as entertainment. He doesn’t try to get revenge on the persons responsible for the death (if there are any), or the people who locked him up. He doesn’t show much effort solving any mystery, except maybe the mystery of now, of the world that has changed so much in his absence.

Call it “Unrevenge Porn.” Rectify, Sundance’s first foray into original drama, confused many of its critics last year in its first season, when the Southern Gothic–brainchild of Ray McKinnon of Deadwood fame–refused to be put into the Laura Palmer/Rosie Larson box of “Weird Whodunnits.”

“We could have made that show, you know?” says Aden Young, the handsome Canadian who plays the former prisoner, Daniel Holden. (And yikes, that name.) “A writer would have sat down and said, a man goes to prison, wrongfully convicted, wrongfully accused, convicted, sentenced to death, somehow miraculously gets out and first thing he does is go to a bar, you know, second thing he does is sleep with the bartender. And the third thing he does is start his path to revenge.”

“But it was no difference between us and that show, except is he or isn’t he going to get revenge?” Mr. Young continues during lunch in Midtown. “He doesn’t go to a bar, he gets picked up by his family, and he’s not quite sure what revenge even means. So we have to look at the minutiae of that, his existence.”

“Ray put it very interestingly when he said that a lot of people ask, ‘What’s the first thing you want to do when you get out, what do you want to eat, where do you want to go?’ And he said he wasn’t interested in that, he was interested in what comes after that. And then what? You could call the show, ‘And Then What?’”

Mr. Young verbosity is particularly surreal; on Rectify, Holden isn’t so much taciturn as mute, unable to explain himself, or the madness he endured in his two decades in prison (rape, abuse, psychological torture) except in crypto-poetic one-liners like “It does something to you, not to be touched in any positive way for so long.”

For a show whose central themes are mystery, murder and religion, Rectify moves at a glacial pace. It’s consumed by its silences, which may as well get top billing along with Mr. Young. Watching Rectify is to watch Daniel thousand-yard stare as he lies down in a field on his first day of freedom, his thousand-yard stare as he develops a friendship with his step-brother’s wife, Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), his thousand-yard stare while his sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) furiously defends him against the townspeople with their pitchforks.

That can be frustrating to some viewers. Mike Hale for The New York Times said that by the second episode “the qualities of surprise and humanity seem to fade and the series takes a turn into gassiness and obscurity.” Hank Stuever from The Washington Post described it as “like an issue of Southern Living magazine guest-edited by Tennessee Williams” which “gets by on its looks alone.”

It’s also one of the poster children, for better or worse, of the “Slow TV” movement, which eschews traditional payoffs for a more languid pace.

“There’s an inherent flaw in that sort of concept with who killed X, because the only thing you can do is deflect yourself from the truth,” Mr. Young said of TV’s mystery format. “So you’re constantly being taken down dark alleys and one-way streets to dead ends that seem to be the right end. But of course they can’t be because you’re only in episode three.” Either that or leave viewers frustrated by the lack of clarity come show’s end…think of Lost, or even True Detective.

That doesn’t mean the show, which premieres its second season tomorrow night, is about nothing…in fact, it’s a show about everything, but these things tend to be the minutiae around what we consider “the big things.” One episode in the first seasons focuses on Daniel’s existential wonder over the new technology made available since he was incarcerated, another had him roaming in a pickup truck with either Satan or an Angel, who tells him “beautiful things hurt the most” while they steal goats, wrestle and stare at Airdancers. Daniel gets baptized. A bird flies into a window. We frequently flashback to Daniel’s time on Death Row, a solitary experience of blinding white light, an inconceivable void of space and time that reminds one of the Neutral Milk Hotel lyric “God is a place where you wait for the rest of your life.”

Despite it’s ethereal roots, Rectify is just as concerned with life before the after-life, and is as much about hot-button issues like capital punishment, for-profit prison systems and the ineffectiveness of American court systems as it is about the possibility of redemption for Daniel. It has changed both lead actor’s perspectives on the American prison system, as they tell me.

“Our show talks about, it humanizes the experience, for sure,” said Ms. Spencer, who says she has spoken to family members of death row inmates between season one and two. “When you humanize something you can’t project anymore, because now you know a human being, and you see it through their point of view. Really, people can change. So should we, as society, rob people of that thought that people can change?

Rectify also partnered with the Osbourne Association, which offers opportunities of reform and rehabilitation for people who have been in trouble with the law, as well as support for families who have a member in the prison system.

“For me absolutely, it was a real wake up,” Mr. Young said of the show. “I got home, I had information, you just, it’s a part of American society, you know? That 25% of the world’s prisons are in America. That America can somehow justify that sort of industry, which is what it is. There’s no mistake there. It’s an industry, if there’s a dollar to be made out of people’s misfortune, they make it. There’s no reason for it to exist like that if you were to look at education and medicine. All that could be turned around, almost within a decade.”

Rectify isn’t a show for everyone, and it’s not Orange is the New Black (nor is it trying to be) for the Southern white death row set. Instead, it’s a piece of poetry, much like the one Mr. Young quoted at the end of our interview.

“It’s like that wonderful W. H. Auden poem that said, ‘And I ran through the streets, my truth acceptable to lying men.’ It makes perfect sense.”

Or even if it doesn’t, at least it’s beautiful.

Rectify premieres this Thursday night at 9 p.m. Eastern on Sundance TV.