The TV series, RECTIFY, ends its four-season run on the Sundance Channel tonight. The show premiered on April 23, 2013, and those who have watched it from the beginning will be sad to see it depart. However, RECTIFYdid pull off something rarely achieved by an excellent TV show – the series did not overstay its welcome.
Quite the feat for a show that began with the premise of a death row inmate released from prison after 19 years (for a crime he may or may not have committed) only to face the daunting challenge of picking up, and starting over while being surrounded by a family that as it turns out will face the exact same challenge in their lives as well. The series had a 30 episode run, which ended up being the perfect amount of time to tell its long-form story.
RECTIFY always maintained a high level of creative quality, especially in one specific area of the craft – Dialogue. For the Professional or Non-professional Writer, there is a lot one can learn from watching the series.
One of the most important Professional Screenwriting Rules about writing dialogue (especially in writing in the drama genre) is to begin from the notion that in real life, people seldom say what they really feel or are thinking. What is left unsaid by characters, or what is said in place of what is hidden is usually a great place to begin if you are a writer working on a script.
The wonderful thing about RECTIFYis that the whole series was essentially a study on the process of communication, or mostly non-communication, between people living in the modern world. From the very first episode, all the principal and supporting characters in the series struggle, scene after scene, with the basic goal of any inter-personal relationship – to communicate effectively with one another. In many ways, the entire run of the show was obsessed with depicting characters attempting to make life-changing breakthroughs in the way they connect with other people, whether they are family members, persons from their past, or members of the surrounding populace one encounters daily in a modern world. This is why, 30 episodes later, the series ends up being a remarkable master class for any fledging writer or Professional who wants to see how the craft of writing dialogue can be brought to the level of art.
I want to point out Three Key Areas in the way series creator/show runner, Ray McKinnon, (along with the other writers/writing staff that contributed creatively to the series throughout its run), managed to use dialogue as they focused their creative attention on a basic flaw most human beings suffer from — the ability to meaningfully communicate with one another. Before we begin, take a look at this scene from season one that depicts the main character, Daniel Holden, interacting with his sister-in-law, Tawney Talbot, shortly after he has been released from prison. Note how the filmmakers establish very early on the creative focus of the show when Tawney says, “I just didn’t know what to say exactly.”
1 The Characters in RECTIFYspeak with consistently Authentic Voices.
One of the biggest challenges in writing for dramas is writing dialogue that comes off in the way real people actually speak. It’s a challenge so difficult that often a writer will just suspend the test and write dialogue that reflects a reality more consistent with the universe of their creation/story, not with real life. I actually take this approach with almost everything I write, which is probably why I appreciate writers who can create dialogue that is both authentic sounding and yet… entertaining. Throughout the series, the characters in Rectify exchange dialogue that might at times have a colorful phrase or two, but mostly is filled with banal or rote expressions, sprinkled with plenty of silent pauses. In other words, authentic sounding. Here is a typical scene from the series with the “authentic” dialogue on full display.
2 - Like real life, often there is an undertow, a sub-text, that is working beneath the surface as people interact with each other.
This second point is at the heart of any well-executed scene of dialogue between two or more characters. And this is one of the reasons RECTIFY was a wonderful series to invest in as a viewer. Below all the banal, rote phrases and silent pauses, there was a dynamic undertow that energized even the most straight-forward scenes of interaction between the show’s characters. The undertow currents flowing below and between the principal characters were set up from the outset, and then carefully modulated during the run of the series. This subtext running below the surface was even there when one of the main characters interacted with a supporting or walk-on character in the storyline - a neighbor, store customer, a supervisor, or apartment manager. All the scenes in RECTIFY seemed to be charged with the type of underlying issues - status, sexism, self-worth, fear, prejudice, etc. – that often inform anyone’s daily interpersonal interaction with another human being. This led to not only great storytelling, but also relatable human drama.
3 The dialogue in RECTIFY really shines when the characters end up using the same banal or superficial banter as a communication weapon.
This is the area where the writers of the series pay off their consistent authentic pitch, and rote verbal choices that inform most of the show's dialogue. These are the scenes that display a level of craft you usually only get from great playwrights or screenwriters who specialize in exploiting the nuances of human behavior through words. In RECTIFY, the verbal interaction between (emotionally locked down) familial characters is in the use of words with a sharp edge, rather than the blunt side of a hammer to make their point. The setting for this scene is a quiet dinner between parents and son, interrupted when the other son drops by unannounced.
As the series played out its final year, the episodes were still pre-occupied with the theme of interpersonal communication. The biggest change with the final episodes was that some of the characters, both main and supporting, were finally making profound personal connections. Not having seen the final show of the series yet, I’m betting that the characters who end up better off than when the show premiered are the ones who have become more comfortable speaking their mind rather than verbally hiding behind a mask.
Throughout the four seasons of the show, the filmmakers behind
RECTIFY used the dynamic interaction of dialogue to explore a theme that metaphorically informed the show’s premise — any of us can wind up in a prison with the only means of escape is to meaningfully connect with yourself… and with other people.