The Return of 'Rectify,' A Critical Darling Sprung From Death Row

Rectify is a dark, contemplative TV drama about a man released from prison after two decades on death row. It was also a critical favorite in its first season. For a glimpse into its creation, NPR's Elizabeth Blair talks to show creator Ray McKinnon and actors Aden Young and Abigail Spencer.

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In the TV series "Rectify," the main character is released from prison after DNA evidence overturns his conviction. He has served nearly 20 years on death row. When the fictional drama debuted on the Sundance Channel last year, critics raved. The LA Times said it sets a new standard for television. The second season of "Rectify" premieres this week. And NPR's Elizabeth Blair has more on what makes the show work.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: At a press conference on the day of his release from prison, the fictional Daniel Holden seems shell-shocked.

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ADEN YOUNG: (As Daniel Holden) I'm not sure what to make of this drastic change of course in my life. I'm certainly not against it.

BLAIR: Ray McKinnon, who created "Rectify," says he was inspired to write the series after seeing TV interviews with real men who were in Daniel Holden's position.

RAY MCKINNON: You know, they were in shock, of course. But they also were describing the first evening as a free person and what they would do. And that just sparked my imagination about what would a person do on the second day, you know, and the third day.

BLAIR: In "Rectify," Daniel Holden returns to the small Georgia town where he was once accused of raping and killing his high school girlfriend. His release causes friction everywhere. His younger sister fears for his life.

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ABIGAIL SPENCER: (As Amanda Holden) There are people around here, Mom, who want to see Daniel dead. People who would do it themselves if they thought they could get away from it.

BLAIR: In his first dinner with his family, Holden seems terrified of being surrounded by people and bewildered by all of the food on the table. Actor Aden Young plays Holden.

YOUNG: There's an almost stumbling effect. It's almost as if he's a creature thrown out of a spaceship into a foreign land.

BLAIR: Everything has changed. Holden's father died while he was in prison. His mother remarried. And he has a new stepbrother who's a teenager - a sweet kid who tries to connect with Holden by offering to show him all of the movies he missed while he was gone.

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JAKE AUSTIN WALKER: (As Jared Talbot) You can go a lot of ways, but one of my favorites it's called "Dazed and Confused."

YOUNG: (As Daniel Holden) I like the title.

WALKER: (As Jared Talbot) Yeah I heard that.

BLAIR: Daniel Holden, as played by Aden Young, has glassy blue eyes and a piercing gaze. He's sensitive and intelligent, but kind of creepy. An odd bird says Ray McKinnon.

MCKINNON: He seemed like the guilty one. You know, you often hear people say, well, he just seemed so normal. He didn't seem like the kind of guy who would do that. Well, conversely, there's the guy that - well, he seemed like the guy who would do that. If you're just an odd bird, society sees you in a different way.

BLAIR: The show gets that right, according to Damien Echols, who in real life has spent nearly two decades in prison.

DAMIEN ECHOLS: I was a victim of that firsthand. I came from a very small, hard-core right wing, fundamentalist town and I did not fit in.

BLAIR: Like the fictional character in "Rectify," Echols was a bit of an outcast. When he and two other teenagers were convicted of brutally murdering three little boys, branded as Satan worshipers and sent to prison, the teenagers became known as the West Memphis Three. Years later, they were released when DNA evidence did not link them to the killings. Echols says "Rectify" is so well done it's hard for him to watch it.

ECHOLS: Like the Daniel character in the show, or even me in real life, once you get out of prison you're going to be even more eccentric just because you've been in prison for so long.

BLAIR: Echols says another truth to the series is how it deals with the little things that are so hard to adjust to after spending nearly two decades split off from society. A book of prison letters between Echols and the woman who is now his wife is out this week. In "Rectify," Daniel Holden is constantly confused at how things have changed and all the new stuff like cell phones and SmartWater. But he does have a sense of humor. In this scene, Holden's younger sister nervously tries to joke around with him.

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SPENCER: (As Amanda Holden) That's kind of how I deal.

YOUNG: (As Daniel Holden) God loves humor.

SPENCER: (As Amanda Holden) Exactly. 'Course you would know about that, wouldn't you? I mean, God. I did it again.

YOUNG: (As Daniel Holden) We call it lethal injection humor - more humane but not as funny.

BLAIR: Having this character, who's been absent for 20 years, forces everyone in the town to examine how their own lives had changed. And whether they can accept a man who for so long they considered evil. And while "Rectify" is laced with humor and intrigue, actor Aden Young says everyone who worked on the series tried to be mindful that, in real life, wrongful murder convictions affect not just the defendants but the families of those who were killed.

YOUNG: How do you go about creating a form of entertainment about something this, you know, anchored by an anvil. And we had to be very careful to measure our fiction against those truths.

BLAIR: Season 2 of "Rectify" begins on the Sundance Channel Thursday night. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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