Jim Carroll

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Why Rectify is the best TV show you’ve probably not seen (yet)

Go on, you know you really want another TV series to add to the list of ones you haven’t seen yet

Tawney Talbot (Adelaide Clemens) and Daniel Holden (Aden Young) in Rectify

Mon, Jun 9, 2014, 09:24


We live, as if you need reminding, in a golden age for TV. We’re drowning in a sea of box sets and full seasons, all of them vying for your attention and affection, all of them accompanied by glowing reviews and positive you-have-to-watch-this word-of-mouth raves.

The protagonists in “Box Sets”, Roddy Doyle’s recent short story for the New Yorker, know all about that sense of swimming in a sea which never goes out. They’ve also hit that point where you begin to talk about TV shows you actually have not seen because everyone else has seen them and you don’t want to be the person who hasn’t seen The Killing yet. DOI: I have not yet seen The Killing. And Breaking Bad was not really that good now that you think about it, was it?

The golden age knows no geographical bounds. Yes, most of the most talked-about shows are coming across the Atlantic – the bulk of this list shows that this was always the way – but increasingly, you’ve finding shows from Denmark (the aforementioned Killing, along with the excellent Borgen and The Bridge) to France (Spiral) cropping in those lists. Add in shows like Line of Duty, Prey and The Fall and the list begins to sprout again.

You begin to wonder if every single waking hour is actually spent watching TV, talking about TV or waiting to watch or talk about TV. As Una Mullally noted in a recent column on the phenomenon, it seems as “if you occupy yourself with anything other than watching television, you’re out of the loop.” That, or you just make up some views on something you’ve not seen. DOI: I’ve only started watching Orange Is the New Black so no spoilers please. And a friend of mine has the most fantastic theories on The Wire, chiefly because he’s never seen it.

Yet in the midst of all of these must-see TV shows, there are some which seem to fall between the cracks. This used to be the way – remember that it took until season three for people to click that a show about Balitimore cops and robbers was actually quite amazing – but it has become less and less common, as people keep finding new shows to rave about. For instance, if you want to know what you’ll be raving about in a few months time, here’s the list to learn off by heart now.

Which brings us neatly to Rectify, the tale of a guy called Daniel Holden (played by Aden Young) adjusting to life in the outside world after spending 19 years in prison on death row for the rape and muder of his girlfriend. The first six episodes were aired last year on the Sundance channel (its first foray into TV making) and the second series kicks off later this month.

In many ways, Rectify is a very old-fashioned TV show, focusing on the lead character and his family and community in a small Georgia town without any need for flash or gimmicks. Holden has to come with terms with catching up with a world which has moved on while he was away, his family have to readjust to his unexpected (and perhaps, in some cases, unwelcome) return and the community are caught between those who want to string him up for what he is supposed to have done and those who want to do right by him now that new DNA evidence has come to light. It’s a very simple tale, yet creator and writer Ray McKinnon uses a straightforward narrative to get across some very complex ideas and nuances about what happens when everything and nothing changes.

Rectify’s willingness to take its time with the story and let the various characters put their stripes on the show is what really brings you in. Each character in Holden’s immediate clan reacts to his return and the anger in the local town in different ways, as you’d expect, but it’s Holden’s own reaction which really holds our attention. Is he this quiet, reserved and taciturn because he was always that way or has spending two decades behind lock and key turned him?

It’s a superb performance by Young, turning this readjustment to a crazy world after years spent in a much different, much more crazy universe in a quiet, determined tour-de-force. This is no sense of closure or a big reveal about what really happened because that’s not how real life works. At a time when most TV dramas seem to tie themselves up in knots and layers, Rectify succeeds because it concentrates on a simple but compelling story.