There’s a moment in the first episode of ABC’s new legal drama Convictionwhen Merrin Dungey’s Maxine Bohen appeals to a police officer’s sense of institutional honor, telling him that she took her job as Lead Investigator in the Conviction Integrity Unit because good cops need support now more than ever.
This tells you everything you need to know about the fine sociopolitical line Conviction seems intent on walking in its exploration of a corrupt justice system. In other words, it’s not looking to piss “Middle America” off — or challenge any mainstream ideas about American institutions. Sure, there will be bad guys — as the aformentioned cop turns out to be — but corruption happens at the individual level, not the institutional one.
Conviction tells the story of a group of lawyers, detectives, and forensic experts who are brought together to re-examine cases where there is a suspicion of wrongful conviction. It’s a tight, potentially fruitful premise made more urgent by the five-day period (why five days? stop asking questions, that’s not what this show is about!) the district attorney has given the Conviction Integrity Unit to make a judgment on each case.
The team is made up of a group of interesting characters greatly elevated by this cast of solid actors. There’s Hayley Atwell, of course, sporting a rather impressive American accent. She plays protagonist Hayes Morrison, a former first daughter who has issues from having grown up in the public eye with parents who didn’t always have time for her. It’s a tough character to sell, but Atwell gives her the depth that elevates Hayes from entitled brat to self-aware, struggling, smart, and quasi-bleeding-heart leader of the CIU.
Convictiondoes a good job of quickly defining why any of these characters are part of the CIU, and giving them all stakes, which is going to make a huge difference moving forward once these cases-of-the-week start getting repetitive.
Hayes is busted for cocaine possession and is blackmailed by the dashingly smarmy District Attorney Conner Wallace (Eddie Cahill) into leading the CIU. Sam Spencer (The Following‘s Shawn Ashmore) has political aspirations. If he reports back to Wallace about Hayes, then he will have a spot in Wallace’s eventual political campaign. Then there’s the aforementioned Maxine Bohen, a former cop and daughter of a cop who wants to look out for the NYPD, but not at the cost of justice.
Next up we have Frankie Cruz (Manny Montana). Frankie has been to jail himself and uses that insight (as well as his forensic skills) to help the team. As a former inmate with ties to men still on the inside, the motivation and stakes for Frankie are very personal. It’s rare to see an ex-con portrayed so positively on TV, so I am excited to see where Frankie’s character will go. So far, though, he hasn’t gotten very much development and seems too defined by his status as Someone Who Used to Be in Prison.
Finally, we have Tess Larson (played by The Walking Dead‘sEmily Kinney). Tess is the sweet, idealistic one of the bunch, but that workaholic exterior hides a trauma from her past directly related to the work she’s now doing.
It helps that Convictionso quickly defines why any of these people are here (besides the paycheck, obviously) and it helps that they don’t all immediately get along. These characters aren’t friends… yet. They’re barely even co-workers. If Convictioncan sell us on some carefully-constructed character drama, then this show could be something worth watching.
There’s a lot that is hard to swallow about this show, but the fact that the group is understandably annoyed by Hayes’ initially immature attitude makes at least their dynamic somewhat believable. Because it is offensively self-absorbed that Hayes doesn’t want to be there, even when people’s freedom is at stake. Again, if Atwell wasn’t giving this her all, I might hate Hayes, too. But the fact that Atwell plays Hayes like she knows that she is being offensively self-absorbed helps this character.
At the end of the day, Conviction is a mediocre procedural elevated by its cast, but that — so far — doesn’t seem overly interested in rocking the boat and potentially becoming something much greater. That’s fine. Not every show can or wants to be American Crime. No, this show has other aims. You can almost see the chart someone made trying to break apart the elements of Scandaland put them into another, just-different-enough show with enough Serial-like elements to pull in the NPR crowd (yeah, good luck with that.)
Just look at the central character: a flawed, powerful female leader with a chip on her shoulder and secret heart of gold, a connection to the White House (in this case, she’s a former First Daughter), and ill-advised romantic tension with a powerful d-bag (in this case, Wallace). But, if you’re going to aspire to be a show, Scandalis not a bad one to aim for (well, early Scandal, at least).
Of course, the other show it’s impossible not to compare Conviction to is Agent Carter,Atwell’s last ABC vehicle. Agent Carterwasn’t canceled because of Conviction, and it’s really not fair to compare two shows that have basically nothing in common besides their network and star — but, if life were fair, Agent Carter would still be on the air. While Convictionis a fine show, it’s lawyer-scandal-cop formula is also a dime a dozen. Agent Carterwas one of a kind. It’s hard not to think about its absence when watching these first few mediocre episodes.