Sundance Original 'Rectify' Premieres Tonight

New series tackles crime and punishment in the South

Southern man is accused of the rape and murder of a young girl, is convicted and sentenced to death, and serves 19 years in prison before DNA evidence appears that may exonerate him from guilt. Sound familiar?

Aden Young in Rectify

Yes, we here in Texas know a thing or two about the criminal justice system – how it should work, how it does work, and who often finds themselves at the business end of a capital punishment sentence – but there's one part of those triumphant Innocence Project cases that we don't necessarily ever hear much about: What happens to these former convicts after they're returned to society? Rectify, a new original series from the Sundance Channel does just that.

Daniel Holden (Aden Young) was arrested at 18 for the rape and murder of his then-girlfriend, Hanna Dean. He spent 19 years in a windowless white chamber, dodging five consecutive dates with death, and fighting – peaceably – against the institution and some of his fellow inmates. But nearly two decades later, when he's released back into his hometown of Paulie, Ga., he faces some of the toughest challenges of his life.

His family – shakily glued together with a new step-brother and step-sister-in-law – doesn't quite know how to handle him. His younger brother barely knew Daniel before he went in, and his loyal little sister, Amantha (Abigail Spencer), is better suited to gallows humor ("we call it lethal injection humor – more humane") than consolation in his time of need. His town is divided: Some support his release and empathize with him after his lost years, but others are devoutly against his reentry into their small-town society and are deadset in letting him know how they feel. Indeed, his case is still open, the DNA evidence having released him but not exonerated him – a finer point of the law opposing counsel is certain to make at his release press conference.

The series unfolds slowly – its six episodes cover just his first week out – which may leave viewers desperate for more detail, more exposition, just … more. But those patient viewers will be swept in by the end of the first episode by this gripping drama's characters and emotions and gutwrenching twists. They'll find intrigue in the law and order of retrying his case, and warmth in the surprising form of one of Daniel's fellow inmates. They'll find humor in Daniel's rediscovery of his Nineties artifacts in the attic and mystery as one of the former witnesses disappears suddenly. There's psychological unraveling and sexual tension and Dazed & Confused and philosophy and religion – it's the Deep South, after all. All in all it's a lot to handle, but that's likely an accurate depiction of the flood of emotions that must follow such a dramatic incarceration. It is, as one character says early on, "as messed up as a pile of hangers."

Abigail Spencer as Amantha in Rectify

Sundance Channel is just off the successful run of Top of the Lake as it dives right into this, the first drama series entirely its own. And its pilot episode is nothing if not compelling. Tune in tonight for an introduction to his complex web of characters, and keep checking back in for the latest in their ever-stranger tiny town antics.

With the creators of Breaking Bad producing and Ray McKinnon at the writer's desk, it's definitely a world worth exploring. Just know that the show – like the real-world criminal justice system – may leave you with more questions than answers.

Rectify starts with a two-hour season premiere tonight, 8pm and 9pm CT, on the Sundance Channel.

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Rectify, Sundance Channel, Ray McKinnon, Aden Young, criminal justice, exoneration, DNA evidence, Abigail Spencer, Breaking Bad, Deep South

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