‘Rectify’: From Peabody Awards winner & Critics’ Choice Awards nominee to Emmys?

Rectify”earned a Best Drama Series nomination at the recent Critics’ Choice Awards for its third season, which aired on SundanceTV last summer. Can this critically acclaimed show, which was honored with a Peabody Award last year, break through at this year’s Emmys? With perennial nominee “Mad Men” no longer in contention, there is at least one open slot in the top drama race.

Rectify” is the first original series for SundanceTV, which has had great awards success with its long-form programming. The miniseries “Carlos,” “Top of the Lake” and “The Honorable Woman” all earned Emmy bids in major categories. The critics have lauded “Rectify” from its debut in 2013. On MetaCritic, it merited a score of 82 out of 100 for season one, then a whopping 92 for season two and 89 for season three.

SundanceTV Emmy submissions:
‘Rectify,’ ‘Hap and Leonard’ and ‘Last Panthers’ category placements

The third season of “Rectify” took a sideways step in its storytelling. Mostly holding steady on the show’s central mystery – who really committed the murder for which Daniel Holden (Aden Young) spent 20 years on death row? – the show instead focused on a closely related question: who killed George Melton, one of the witnesses who helped put Daniel away all those years ago?Alan Sepinwall (Hitfix) said of the most recent season, “This is an amazing show, beautifully acted and simply beautiful to look at.” Jeff Jenson (Entertainment Weekly) added, “It’s rich with beautifully crafted scenes that capture the distance, anger, and confusion of a fragmenting family and souls in flux.”

Viewers know that George shot himself in the very first episode of the series, but another witness, Trey, went to such great effort to frame Daniel for it that he ended up implicating himself. Trey is played by Sean Bridgers, who is making a name for himself playing sinister characters; last year he was also Brie Larson‘s kidnapper in “Room.” But while this storyline did fill in a lot of the blanks about the series’ overarching plot, what made the third season so strong – as every season – was the continued development of character. “Rectify” moves at a gradual pace, even with only six episodes to advance the story. But instead of feeling slow, the show fills every scene, every exchange of dialogue and every look and gesture with meaning.

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Young’s performance as Daniel continues to be a haunted wonder and absolutely deserves an Emmy nomination for Best Drama Actor; he’s contended at the Critics’ Choice Awards for both seasons two and three. The third season was just as noteworthy for the way the supporting players stepped up to the plate, especially Adelaide Clemens and Clayne Crawford as Tawney and Teddy, whose marriage has come unraveled since Daniel’s release from prison. In the show’s first two years we got to know both of them mostly through their relationships with Daniel – he and Teddy are stepbrothers and adversaries while devout Tawney got too close to Daniel while trying to save his soul – but this year we got to know them better on their own terms. What do they want for their marriage and for themselves? And how did their upbringings lead them to this point? Crawford earned a Critics’ Choice nom for Best Drama Supporting Actor, and deserved it just for a scene in a car between Teddy and his half-brother Jared (Jake Austin Walker) in which he delivers a penitent speech about regrets from his past while watching Tawney from afar.

Abigail Spencer, who reaped a Critics’ Choice bid for season one, continued her stalwart performance as Daniel’s sister Amantha, usually the fighting spirit of the Holden clan but experiencing her own crisis of identity, trying to decide what her future should be now that her mission to exonerate Daniel hasn’t gone exactly as she hoped. Their mother is played by J. Smith-Cameron in one of the show’s quietest performances, but one that’s full of depth and longing – and long overdue joy when she bonded with Daniel during a heartwarming road trip.

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At risk of being overlooked is J.D. Evermore as the sheriff investigating the various crimes. He seemed to simply be an antagonist early on in this series, but especially in season three as new evidence has come to light, we constantly see the tension in his demeanor between his distrust of Daniel and his dedication to his job. His investigation leads him down roads he doesn’t necessarily want to follow, forcing him to question his preconceptions. Evermore is giving us one of the show’s most interesting character arcs, painting a picture of stubborn integrity.

The end of shows like “Mad Men” and “The Newsroom” last year opens the door for “Rectify” to walk through at the Emmys, though dozens of other shows are also fighting for the same space. A drama as subtle as this doesn’t grab you by the shoulders and shake you for attention, but it unfailingly rewards your attention if you pay it.

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