Emmys MVP: ‘Rectify’ should put SundanceTV and star Aden Young on the map

Rectify” is an Emmys underdog in just about every way, but the TV academy should take notice, especially now that the drama categories have opened up with the expansion of Best Drama Series to at least seven nominees, not to mention the absences of “Breaking Bad” and “True Detective.” This is one of the season’s very best shows.

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It’s is the first original series from SundanceTV, which has had some awards success for its longform programming, most notably “Top of the Lake” in 2013, but the TV academy may not yet think of the cable network when considering the best continuing dramas. But ignoring it would be a mistake.

The series follows Daniel Holden (Aden Young), who was sent to death row as a teenager for the murder of his girlfriend, only to be released 19 years later after new DNA evidence calls his conviction into question. After spending half of his life in an isolated concrete cell waiting to die, how does he adjust to life on the outside? And how does he cope in a community where many of his neighbors still believe he’s guilty?

The show hinges on the lead performance by Young, and it’s a revelation. Watching him during the first two seasons inspired some of the same feelings as watching Bryan Cranston during the early days of “Breaking Bad” – the sense of something extraordinary in progress that could (or should) be a TV game-changer. But Cranston won an Emmy right out of the gate, while Young has yet to make a dent.

What’s remarkable about Young’s work is how inward he is while still giving us a clear sense of Daniel’s internal thoughts and emotions. After almost two decades in prison, he has become almost as confined as his cell was. His voice is soft and slow. His movements and gestures are small. He gets so lost in thought that he seems to be in a different state of consciousness.

Daniel has to get used to newfangled technologies like cell phones, but the story is less about how the world has changed than about how he has changed. He had resigned himself to death, so he doesn’t know if he has it in him anymore to navigate daily life, from mundane family dramas to existential crises and a justice system still working to put him to death.

The quietness of Young’s performance makes his occasional explosions of emotion even more impactful. Consider the episode “Weird as You,” in which Daniel goes on a drug trip with Trey (Sean Bridgers), who had testified against him. Trey convinces Daniel that he may truly have committed the murder, and the unbridled rage Young summons makes us wonder too.

Even more powerful was the second season finale, “Unhinged,” in which Daniel considers a plea deal that requires him to record a detailed confession. Descending through confused memories of grief and anger, he has an emotional breakdown that feels like the eruption of a dormant volcano. In scenes like that, Young allows us to fear him and empathize with him at the same time. As yet, we don’t fully understand the circumstances of the murder and whodunnit (and neither does Daniel), but even at times we’re not sure we believe him, we believe in him because Young brings us so fully into his state of mind. There’s a lifetime of lived experience in every moment he’s on-screen.

The series is created and produced by Ray McKinnon, who in addition to being an actor from projects like “The Blind Side” and “Sons of Anarchy” is the Oscar-winning director of the 2001 live-action short “The Accountant.” He creates a dreamy mood around his lead character. That’s especially true when Daniel is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but freedom itself is a kind of altered state for him, so while the style of the series is mostly realistic, it often feels surreal, like a sinister Southern Gothic reverie.

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McKinnon has also built enough detail into the fictional town of Paulie, Georgia, that “Rectify” is far from a one-man show. Daniel’s family relationships are especially vital. Abigail Spencer has the showiest supporting role as his sister Amantha, who is a vital balancing force for the series. She is dogged in trying to prove her brother’s innocence and as such expresses much of the story’s anger, passion, and tension while Daniel is often more passive or adrift.

I also admire the quieter performance by J. Smith-Cameron as their mother, Janet. It’s one of the show’s trickiest roles because of the need to express a complex array of emotional conflicts without the character always saying what she’s thinking or feeling. Janet is remarried following the death of Daniel and Amantha’s father, and the two sides of that blended family are often at odds, leaving her stuck in the middle. The role is so well written and acted that I think the show would be just as good with her as the lead character.

One of the biggest problems for the series in terms of generating awards interest is timing: it aired its second season way back in summer 2014, which was more than a year after premiering its six-episode first season in spring 2013, so it hasn’t been able to build consistent momentum. However, it did pick up a Drama Supporting Actress bid at the Critics’ Choice Awards for Spencer and a TCA nomination for Best Movie/Miniseries in 2013. It also earned a 2014 Writers Guild nod for Best Episodic Drama for the episode “Donald the Normal.”

But it might still be too far under the radar for the Emmys, especially when you consider the glut of other prestige dramas it’s competing against on higher-profile networks with more established stars. Voters could almost be forgiven for not knowing it’s on the air at all.

Almost.

Sure, it finished its second season last August, before the TV academy even announced their choices for the best TV of the previous season, but it scored 92 on MetaCritic. That’s far higher than “House of Cards,” “Better Call Saul,” “Downton Abbey,” and “Homeland,” to name just a few dramas that are likelier to be on their radar.

And voters have reached back that far to award the season’s best before. Heck, just last year they anointed “Breaking Bad” TV’s best drama for the second time more than a year after it went off the air for good. “Rectify,” on the other hand, will be back for its third season this summer, so if voters are paying attention it should be fresh in mind when they’re marking their ballots for the best of 2014-2015.

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Can “Rectify” break through? Let’s recap the pros and cons of this Gold Derby Emmy MVP:

PROS:

“Breaking Bad” and “True Detective” are out of contention this year, which means there are open slots to fill in the drama races.

The TV academy has expanded Best Drama Series to seven nominees, or as many as eight or nine if the 2% rule comes into play. That could be good news for underdog shows.

SundanceTV is on the rise, scoring major nominations in recent years for its miniseries “Top of the Lake,” “Restless,” and “Carlos.” “Rectify” could now put the network on the map for dramas the way “Mad Men” did for AMC in 2008.

The Writers Guild nomination this year indicates that the industry is aware of the series and admires it.

CONS:

It’s hard to get awards attention for a show without a widely recognized A-list star.

Airing its second season last summer, it could be out of sight, out of mind. Industry awards voters often have short memories.

A crime drama set in the rural South doesn’t have the urban, upscale Snob Appeal of the shows that usually win Emmys.

Last year the Top 24 Users did the best at predicting the Emmy nominations (78.55%) competing against Gold Derby’s Editors (77.68%), All Users (74.78%) and our Experts (74.64%). Which group will come out victorious this year? (See all prediction accuracy rates here.)

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