Thursday, August 28, 2014

Limbo: Rectify and The Divide

Aden Young stars in Rectify, on the Sundance Channel

There’s a consensus opinion that we’re currently well into a Golden Age of creatively ambitious TV comparable to the movie renaissance of the 1960s and ‘70s, and maybe there’s evidence for that in the success and acclaim enjoyed by some of the most pretentious recent new series. Pretentious TV is nothing new, but in previous decades, “experimental” gobblers like Larry Gelbart’s United States (1980) and Jay Tarses’ The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (1987-1991) were seen as network tax write-offs, indulgences bestowed upon successful veteran TV creators who wanted the chance to sound like auteurs in interviews with The New York Times. After a brief spell, these shows were cancelled or, in the case of Molly Dodd, shuffled off to die a lingering death on cable.

Nowadays, cable is where the action is, and viewers and critics are so eager to show that they’re up to the demands of this challenging medium that when a flawed show that’s clearly straining to join the pantheon arrives, they’ll give it a leg up and even fall over themselves concocting helpful theories explaining why what appear to be its biggest problems are actually the proof that it’s a masterpiece. If, for example, you got a little weary of the overcooked philosophical-hogwash that Matthew McConaughey was obliged to spout throughout True Detective, you may find it reassuring that some reviewers heard the same stuff and reached the thrilling conclusion that McConaughey’s character is not just full of shit but, as Isaac Chotiner insists in The New Republic, “borderline insane.” If this is right, then, when you combine it with the fact that McConaughey’s character is also a master detective whose view of the world seems to be that of the show’s itself, then what we seem to have here is a shiny new TV series modeled on all those dusty old counterculture movies, from Morgan! and King of Hearts to Werner Herzog’s films with Bruno S., in which the insane person is the only one who can clearly see what’s in front of him—unless what’s in front of him is the tall, scar-faced man he’s searching for, if the man happens sitting down in a flattering light. I’m not convinced that the bloviating hero of True Detective really is meant to be cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, but the basic point remains: this could be a great time for people looking to build strong artistic reputations by spinning TV shows out of ideas that were done to death in movies and books and the theater decades ago.

This “what the emperor was wearing when today’s smart cultural gatekeepers weren’t born yet” theory may be the best explanation for the otherwise inexplicable success of Rectify, which has just completed its second season on SundanceTV and has a third one already lined up. SundanceTV started out, back in the late ‘90s, as the Sundance Channel, a broadcast arm of the Sundance Film Festival; it used to show wall-to-wall independent movies, including some real obscure winners that had failed to achieve theatrical distribution or even a DVD release, such as The Target Shoots First, Christopher Wilcha’s funny, eye-opening documentary about his experiences working for the Columbia House mail-order club during the rise of alternative rock. Nowadays, SundanceTV plays pretty much the same roster of well-known “indie” movies as the similarly gelded Independent Film Channel, with commercial interruptions, while aiming to impress with such original TV programming as Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake and the excellent French series The Returned. Rectify was created by Ray McKinnon, a Georgia-born actor familiar for his roles in such movies as O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Take Shelter, and Mud, and as the gently unstable minister who Al Swearengen put out of his misery on the HBO series Deadwood; in indie-movie/art-TV circles, he, as Holly Hunter’s daughters said of his character in O Brother, is bona fide.

Abigail Spencer and Aden Young in Rectify
The show itself is a throwback to the days before the term “independent movie” became a widely accepted cultural signifier and marketing label, back when people used to shuffle around the Sundance Festival—especially before it changed its name from the Utah/US Film Festival in 1985—murmuring about the subtle charms of “regional filmmaking.” Regional (or “granola”) filmmaking meant thinly plotted stories about unglamorous people living close to the land in the flyover states between the two great coasts. These were movies—with titles like Heartland and Stacking—that were made to be shown on PBS, not during pledge week. Rectify has a newsy story hook: the central figure, Daniel Holden (Aden Young), has been released from prison after spending 19 years on death row for rape and murder. Seemingly exonerated of the crime thanks to new DNA evidence, he wanders out into the world, in his mid-thirties, trying to make sense of it all while the prospect of a new trial still hangs over his head. When Daniel was a teenager, he was coerced into signing a confession, and the prosecutor in the case, played by the glowering Michael O’Neill, used the conviction as a springboard to the United States Senate and is loath to just drop the matter.

So Daniel drifts around his tiny Georgia town, trying to find a way to interact with his family—which now includes his loving mother (J. Smith-Cameron) and his spitfire sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer), who’s sleeping with his lawyer (Luke Kirby), but also his stepfather, Ted, Sr. (Bruce McKinnon), who used to work for his father, and Ted’s adult son, Ted. Jr. (Clayne Crawford). (Ted, Sr. is a sweetheart. His son is a lout who makes no attempt to hide his belief that Daniel committed the murder.) And drift is pretty much what he does, and what the series does.  The pilot episode, written by McKinnon and directed by Keith Gordon, is the high point of the series, by miles, if not light years: intricate and involving, it opens with Daniel’s release from prison and ends with a couple of “witnesses” who testified against Daniel at his trial having a mysterious conversation on a river bank, after which one of them shoots himself through the head.

The rest of the six-episode first season shows McKinnon and the other writers doing their best to think up ways to flesh out this set-up and getting exactly nowhere. Daniel walks around, tries to remember things, muses on how things sure have changed since the mid-90s, and gets himself baptized. Meanwhile, the people around him discuss the possible ramifications of his guilt or innocence and acknowledge that living in a town the size of a postage stamp with a man who was convicted of murdering one of its inhabitants can make for some awkward situations. Daniel also gets jumped and badly beaten by the brother of the women he was accused of killing, though the biggest dramatic set piece comes when he gets fed up with his brother-in-law—whose obsessive interest in prison rape would make him a poor conversationalist even if he weren’t talking so someone who was raped in prison—and knocks him unconscious and leaves him in his empty tire store after closing hours with his pants around his ankles and coffee grounds piled on his butt. That’ll learn him.

Adelaide Clemens in Rectify
The second season runs ten episodes, but nothing much more happens in it than did in the first. The under-populated settings and funereal pace—buffed up with a score that usually consists of some mournful sawing at a cello or one finger plunking on a piano—are constants of the granola genre, but Rectify is still just shockingly devoid of actual content. Certainly “content” would be too flattering a word to apply to Aden Young’s performance. Young, who made a promising movie debut 23 years ago as the assistant to the Jesuit missionary hero of Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe—stalks through the entire series with a solemn, stoic manner and a bug-eyed look that could spook Michael Shannon. There have been a fair number of actual exonerated death row survivors on TV recently, on documentary series such as The System with Joe Berlinger and Our America with Lisa Ling, and I’ve never seen one whose experiences had just erased any trace of a personality or any capacity for enthusiasm, the way it has with Daniel the Southern Gothic Zombie. His bombed-out affect, complete with manners so proper that he addresses his mother as “Mother,” and sometimes even addresses Amantha as “Sister,” so impress Ted. Jr.’s sweet Christian wife Tawney (Adelaide Clemens) that she begins to develop feelings for him, feelings that are only helped along by her husband’s loutishness. It’s not much of a compliment to either party to say that they deserve each other. Clemens, an Australian actress who starred in the unpleasantly deranged grindhouse-style thriller No One Lives (2012),  plays her role as if simple, Christian Southern women were some exotic species with an undercurrent of sadness and suffering and a mental capacity somewhere between that of a small fish or large rock.

Rectify takes such pride in being so boring that watching it would be a mind-numbing, soul-crushing experience even if it were about hobbits and dragons. The fact that it’s got a potentially great, real-world subject is enough to make it at least mildly enraging. In the long, slow, final hours of the second season, the evil powers that be finally offer Daniel a plea deal: they won’t retry him, allowing him to remain free and sparing him the experience (and potentially ruinous financial costs) of another long term in court, if he’ll admit that he did commit the murder—so that his confession wasn’t wrongly obtained—and accept “banishment” from the state of Georgia. Amazingly, both his cold-fish lawyer and his fiery sister lean on him not to take this miraculous offer: if he does, he’ll be doing what “they” want, and will be a “coward.” Have these two literally fucked each other’s brains out? Or is the show just set in the same moral universe as movies like The Verdict, where the audience is expected to agree that a lawyer is right to take big chances that might not be in his clients’ best interests, without even consulting them first, because his first duty is not to his clients but to reclaiming his soul from the dirty system? (There also seems to be some shared assumption that, if Daniel relocates to some place beyond the state line, they’ll never be able to see him again. Maybe his confusion about the possibilities afforded by modern, post-horse-and-buggy technology is hereditary.) There are valid alternatives to believable documentary reality—the compelling, doom-laden atmosphere and look of True Detective, for all that show’s problems, is one of them—but when a show is cobbled together from stale art-house clich├ęs and has nothing new to add and no distinctive style of its own, it’s insulting for it to also take a real subject and treat it in a way that’s neither compelling nor believable on any level.

Marin Ireland and Paul Schneider in The Divide

Before there were indie movies or ambitious TV, moviegoers used to turn to low-budget but distinctive little B-movies as an alternative to unimaginative, overbearing, big Hollywood product. The Divide, which has just wrapped up its first, eight-episode season on the WeTV channel, was created by Richard LaGravenese, whose screenplay credits include The Fisher King, The Bridges of Madison County, and Beloved, and who wrote and directed the underrated Living Out Loud, and Tony Goldwyn, who plays the horny weak suck of a President on Scandal and who also has a diverse raft of directing credits for movies and TV, starting with the fine Diane Lane-Viggo Mortensen romance A Walk on the Moon (1999). (LaGravanese wrote the first two episodes, which Goldwyn directed.) Given the A-list nature of the creative team, it might seem a bit off to compare The Divide to one of those little B-movies, but its placement on a cable network best known for Bridezillas and reality series built around Joan Rivers and Toni Braxton and their respective families definitely leaves it with less cultural cachet than Rectify. Which is  a shame, since it’s a much better show.

Both shows begin with men who were (presumably) wrongly convicted of capital crimes, but The Divide isn’t a meditative stroll through sleep small-town America but a big-city legal thriller. The heroine, Christine (Marin Ireland), is a worker for an Innocence Project-style organization who has a personal interest in the case of a man (Chris Bauer) awaiting execution; the details of his conviction rhyme with that of her father, who was convicted of murder when she was a child, even though she tried to vouch for his whereabouts at the time of the killing. Ireland’s Christine has tired eyes and the edginess of someone who chose to have a harder life than she could have, partly out of integrity but also to spite the people who could have softened things for her, and when she’s in the middle of what looks like one of several very long drives that make up too much of her existence, scarfing down her breakfast and singing along with a rap song, she’s close to irresistible. She could give the cast of Rectify such much-needed lessons in how to come across as haunted by the past without behaving like a walking corpse.

The Divide doesn’t rewrite the book on police procedurals. It isn’t The Wire—but the presence of Chris Bauer and Clarke Peters, two actors who did extraordinary work on that show, may be a signal from LaGravenese and Goldwyn that they know where to look to for models of the form. Peters plays a magisterial police official who once agreed to conspire with the rich and powerful to protect one of their own by railroading an innocent man, in a case that his son (Damon Gupton) prosecuted; it made the younger man’ career. This conspiracy angle isn’t the riskiest and most daring thing about the show; that would be the indignant speeches Peters makes, defending his actions to his son as what a black man has to do to get ahead, as if he were a secret civil rights hero. The scenes in which the old man uses the struggle for racial equality to justify his own corruption, and—to his son’s horror—tries to drag his grandson into his paranoid vortex, are little seminars on how the American pursuit of power for its own sake finally taints everything noble, even the noblest parts of our own history. Not the least of The Divide’s virtues is that it’s set in the world, here and now, which has more interesting things to offer than Ray McKinnon’s dream of writing the best cutting-edge TV drama of 1979.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. Club, HitFlix, Nerve, HiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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