Before the before-time and in the long-ago, the world woke up to a radical new idea: long-form television storytelling was a force in the arts.
This shift was a sudden maturation in storytelling, taking viewers into the interior of characters and into the subtleties of complex human and social situations. Viewers were finding something more than entertainment; they were finding what the readers of great novelists were in search of, and finding, in an earlier era. That is, powerful, emotionally engaging character studies and incisive portraits of a time-period, a community or a family.
Here are two of the great series – both available on streaming now – that helped define that shift. One is a character study of exquisite, unsettling depth and the other is both a spectacle and penetrating political case study.
Rectify (all four seasons on Netflix) arrived on Sundance TV in 2013. It didn’t take long to realize this was Crime and Punishment in the here-and-now. This column called it, “A masterpiece of Southern Gothic drama.” It could be summarized as, “After almost 20 years on death row, Daniel Holden leaves prison, the evidence that convicted him undermined, and he wants a new life.” That summary’s correct but cannot do justice to the subtlety of the journey into madness and suffering that Daniel undergoes.
Toronto-born and Australia-raised Aden Young plays Daniel, beautifully, and from the start, it seems certain it will never become clear what role Daniel played in the murder of the young woman for which he was convicted. But this is no mystery tale. His release stirs all manner of nervousness, regret and rage in the small community where he lives, and that is what Rectify is about. It is also about Daniel, hardened by prison, having spent most of his time in solitary confinement, reading and reading. Now that he is out, he isn’t free. He carries the burden of what he caused his family. He is joyful, wary, unsure. He is a damaged, sensitive man facing the richness and complexity of life outside prison.
Created by Ray McKinnon, Rectify is at first anchored in the relationship between Daniel and his sister, Amantha (Abigail Spencer, who is stunningly good), whose adult life was dedicated to getting him out of prison. Amantha is a wonderful creation, a woman who is part firecracker and part maternal angel. Now that Daniel’s out, her life begins to disintegrate.
Daniel’s father is dead and his mother, Janet (J. Smith-Cameron), has married a solid, careful man, Ted Talbot Sr. (Bruce McKinnon). But Ted Talbot’s son, Teddy Jr. (Clayne Crawford), is resentful of the attention given to Daniel and enraged by the sympathy his wife, Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), shows Daniel. What happens to Daniel and to Teddy Jr. and Tawney, unfolds with a slowness that is highly unusual, even in the best of TV drama. Scenes are extended for their quietness, not their melodrama.
Daniel, meanwhile, is like a smouldering ember – sometimes it seems he is lost forever and gone cold, but he is alive, on fire inside his own mind.
Rome (Crave) emerged on HBO in 2005, as an HBO/BBC co-production, and at a time when the premium channel was lavishing vast amounts of money on series. It is, however, for all its lavishly staged sex, nudity and bloody violence, far more than eye-popping historical drama.
It opens in 52 BC, with the intricate power struggle between Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) and Senate leader Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham) for control of Rome. Caesar has returned from conquering vast parts of Europe and is the hero of the Roman masses. Magnus has already begun to convince the nobility that Caesar is a dangerous figure and must be diminished.
A hefty subplot is devoted to two of Caesar’s soldiers: the earnest Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and the violent drunkard Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson). They’re mismatched allies who form a friendship when rescuing Octavian (Max Pirkis), Caesar’s great-nephew, when he’s kidnapped. Meanwhile in Rome itself, Octavian’s mother Atia (Polly Walker) schemes and seduces frantically. She wants her son to be Emperor and will do anything to gain ground, including offering her daughter to Magnus as wife or mistress. She also despises Cleopatra, who she describes as a trollop.
Over two seasons – more were planned but the costs were increasing and the economic crash of 2008 intervened – Rome is an intricately plotted story about political power and intimate human dilemmas and crises. It makes Game of Thrones look like a game for children.
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