TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Tonight, the Sundance Channel premieres a six-part TV drama series called "Rectify," about a death row inmate released from prison after almost two decades in isolation. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "Rectify," the new drama series from the Sundance Channel, wants to stand out from the pack - and it certainly succeeds at that. It's a six-hour, limited series more along the British model of TV than ours here in the States. If these first six installments catch on enough, the story will continue. If not, that's it.
And "Rectify" is so unusual a show, with its own deliberate pace and premise and approach, that it may not build enough viewership to keep going. But that doesn't mean it's not a worthwhile show, or a memorable one - because it is.
"Rectify" is created by actor Ray McKinnon, who played the ill-fated reverend on HBO's "Deadwood." Its other executive producers, along with McKinnon, are Mark Johnson and Melissa Bernstein, producers on AMC's "Breaking Bad." So the lineage here is spectacular. The plot, though, has (technical difficulties) there's a lot less going on - and that's clearly on purpose.
"Rectify" stars Aden Young as Daniel Holden, a man who was convicted of raping and murdering his girlfriend as a teenager and sentenced to death row. After 19 years, he's suddenly set free, thanks to a re-examination of the DNA evidence, and he returns to his family and hometown. Except he's returning to what is, by now, a completely unfamiliar environment, and one that's bewildering and often hostile as well.
Over the course of the six hours, we're shown flashbacks of Daniel in prison, and the coping skills that helped him deal with the near-total isolation. Books became his salvation, and he read a lot of philosophy and religion. So he emerges from prison with a lot on his mind - but no skills at how to share his thoughts.
He's so silent and passive so much of the time, he's like Peter Sellers as Chauncey Gardiner in "Being There."But on the rare occasions when he does speak, he reveals how much inner turmoil and confusion is bubbling beneath his calm surface.
When he's released from prison, for example, he's ushered to a quickly assembled outdoor press conference to confront the media. He's guided to the bank of microphones as TV cameras hone in on him, eager for a quick soundbite. But Daniel is unprepared, and in no hurry, and his answer shows just how out of sync he is with the pace of life he's about to experience.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RECTIFY")
ADEN YOUNG: (as Daniel) Hello. I'm not sure what to make of this drastic change of course of my life. I'm certainly not against it. Over the past two decades, I have developed a strict routine, which I've followed religiously in my stay, a way of living and thinking - or not thinking, as was often the point of, well, the point. Now, this way of being didn't encourage the contemplation that a day like today could ever occur.
(as Daniel) Or a tomorrow like tomorrow. (technical difficulties) will be for me now. I had convinced myself that kind of optimism served no useful purpose in the world where I existed. Obviously, this radical belief system was flawed and was, ironically, a kind of fantasy itself. At the least, I feel that those specific coping skills were best suited to the life there behind me.
(as Daniel) I doubt they will serve me so well for the life in front of me. That was seriously my worldview.
BIANCULLI: I don't think I've ever seen a TV character at the center of a TV series who's anywhere near as passive as Daniel Holden is written and portrayed here. Daniel doesn't do anything - at least, not in these six episodes, which dramatize his first week of release from prison. Instead, he either accepts or refuses invitations, engages in conversations or declines to, as he's approached by those around him. It's a gripping performance, but not a showy one.
The women around him manage to get him to reveal the most. There's his sister, played by Abigail Spencer, who has believed in him all along; his mother, played by J. Smith-Cameron, who has remarried while Daniel was in prison after his father died; and Tawney, played by Adelaide Clemens from "Parade's End," on HBO, as a devout Christian who sees good in Daniel when so many still see him as guilty.
These actresses are all very good, and the women they play are extremely different and complicated in their own right. Daniel floats among these characters and others, and along various situations, like a leaf in a stream. But his character is revealed, and built up, through the directions he allows himself to be taken in, and in the ways he reacts -a small smile when he unpacks a box in the attic, and retrieves his old Atari games and mix tapes; a horrifying story he tells, when asked, about life in prison; and often, just the way he actively soaks in his new environment: nature, the buildings, the people, even the wind.
The connection to "Breaking Bad" is obvious here, in two key respects. One, the photography is beautiful, with scenes filmed cinematically and often hauntingly. And two, the pace is defiantly deliberate. Some silences, and some entire scenes, go on and on, way past the point of comfort. But that's just reflecting things from Daniel's point of view, where time is all there is.
The six episodes of "Rectify" demand that you adjust to their method of storytelling - slow and prone to detours, almost anything but linear. But since Daniel has to work so hard to adjust, why shouldn't we viewers carry some of the load? Those who do, I suspect, will come to the end of "Rectify" wondering what happens to Daniel next - and wanting more.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the site TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. This is FRESH AIR.