Rectify is about a man who is freed from death row after 19 years because his conviction has been vacated. Rectify is about sin, the South, and families who, like groups of stone, weather and drift with time. Rectify, returning for its second season last night, is also the worst recent example of "slow TV," a subgenre that includes The Walking Dead, True Detective, and the middle episodes of every season of Game of Thrones (the ones with too much movement and machinery).
Slow TV is an aesthetic mode (and kind of viewership) that promises future rewards from intense concentration—a thing cannot just be a thing. Don't enjoy Matthew McConaughey's scowls because they are wittily gnarly, enjoy them because they hold the secrets to the universe! Sometimes slow TV reaps rich ambiguity and surprise from the banal, but other times, slow TV is just fucking dumb. (Did you buy a copy of Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow? Have you burned it yet?)
Sure, slow TV has produced brilliances, like The Wire and a few episodes of Game of Thrones and that one episode of Breaking Bad with the fly. But without complication, the form naturally gives itself to excess. An object at rest stays at rest. Stillness, seriousness, and scrutiny get all tangled together. The Sopranos, the fountainhead, crystallized a lot of these rules and then ignored them. Rectify, the nadir, follows these rules over the edge.
It has a dreamy cast—seriously, Abigail Spencer, J. Smith-Cameron, and Adelaide Clemens are exquisite in the classic sense—and a central mystery (did Daniel really do it?; and if not, who did?), but no centrifugal force. It has a lot of moods—languor, despair, and abstract overriding misapprehension—but a narrow, literal dramatic and visual vocabulary that gets in the way of our enjoyment. Everyone pauses. There is a lot of pausing. And symmetry! Faces look away from each other to hide a tricksy new feeling, but they never look away from us. Even a hug has to mean too much.
The Good Wife and Teen Wolf are two of the best things you can watch on TV right now. They are funny, tragic, and weird; they are devilishly visual and clever and silly to the point of crassness. They are not slow. They are not just slow. Friday Night Lights felt slow but wasn't, like a feint. Treme was slow, but also wasn't really a TV show, not a story. More like watching the sidewalk outside of a coffee shop.
Rectify sometimes resembles a story, but you get the sense that it would prefer to be left alone. That maybe you should just go ahead change the channel. When, at the end of the season 2 premiere, Daniel and his best friend (a black man, the only one) meet in a dream state to talk about hope and heaven, they say things like, "Thank Gawd," and then they both cry. The camera lingers. They are wearing white. The cows in the background are black. The statue is headless.
This, the critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote in a recent rave, is "truly Christian art." He's half right, I guess: All of the worship, and none of the salvation.
[Images via Sundance]