In the second hour of Sundance Channel's incredibly absorbing new series "Rectify," Daniel Holden takes off his shoes and socks in the outfield of a baseball diamond. He revels at the feel of grass between his toes and the sun on his face, two sensations he hadn't experienced in the 19 years he spent on death row.
"I'm not sure what to think of this ... drastic change of course in my life," Daniel says in an earlier scene outside the prison just after his release. "I'm certainly not against it."
Thankfully, creator and writer Ray McKinnon, Sundance and the producing team behind "Breaking Bad," Mark Johnson and Melissa Bernstein, weren't against letting viewers see Daniel's every new discovery, conflicted emotion and painful memory as he tries to adjust to a world he hasn't seen since he was 18.
Aden Young delivers an extraordinary performance as Daniel, who is released from prison when new DNA evidence is used to vacate his conviction for the rape and murder of his then 17-year-old girlfriend. In riveting close-ups, Young shares both Daniel's wonder at the world and the shock to his prison-dulled senses. It's easy to understand how Daniel sometimes misses the solitude of death row.
McKinnon has said he was inspired by a series of Illinois death sentences that were overturned by DNA evidence a decade ago, but "Rectify" (8 p.m. CT April 22, Sundance Channel*; 4 stars out of 4) isn't a simple political statement. It's a powerful, emotionally engaging character study.
The six-hour series takes place over the first seven days of Daniel's freedom as he struggles to get to be more than an outsider to his family or his hometown of Paulie, Ga.
Daniel's father died while he was in prison and his mother, Janet (J. Smith-Cameron) married Ted Talbot Sr. (Bruce McKinnon), who now runs the family car dealership. Daniel has never met their teen son and his half brother, Jared (Jake Austin Walker). Daniel's stepbrother, Ted Talbot Jr. (Clayne Crawford), worries Daniel will take his job, while Ted's wife, Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), wants to see Daniel baptized as a born-again Christian.
A lot of people in Paulie, like Ted Jr., question Daniel's new freedom. Chief among those convinced of his guilt is Roland Foulkes (Michael O'Neill), the one-time prosecutor who rode the Holden case to the state Senate. His just as devoted to seeing Daniel go back to prison as Daniel's younger sister, Amantha (Abigail Spencer), and his new lawyer, Jon Stern (Luke Kirby), are to keeping him free.
All the characters in "Rectify" are fully realized, brought to life by an outstanding supporting cast that fills every moment with interesting, unexpected choices. Hal Holbrook barely moves during his cameo as Daniel's first lawyer, Rutherford Gaines, but is both terrifying and mesmerizing.
Slow-moving and meditative, "Rectify" is bound to turn away viewers who are used to quickly resolved network legal dramas and murder mysteries. But the deliberate pacing cements the idea that Daniel, who on death row contemplated "the time in between the seconds...," now has all the time in the world.
The nagging questions of who really killed Hannah Dean and why Daniel confessed in the first place add to the simmering tension, but the real beauty of "Rectify" is its unwavering look into Daniel's psyche.
* AMC will re-air episodes of "Rectify" beginning April 28 after "Mad Men."
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