Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Pilot Review: Conviction

Conviction (Mondays at 10:00 on ABC)

As I was watching the premiere of Conviction last night, there was one nagging question I couldn't get out of my head. No, it wasn't the question of who committed the crime on screen, or if the convicted murderer was truly guilty. The question I couldn't stop thinking about was how a show with a cast full of such likable actors could be such a chore to sit through.

The idea behind Conviction isn't a bad one. Based on organizations like The Innocence Project, Conviction follows a fictional group of detectives, lawyers, forensic analysts, and investigators known as the Conviction Integrity Unit who work to overturn wrongful convictions. The CIU is begun by New York DA Conner Wallace (Eddie Cahill, CSI: NY) to bolster his political image, while he blackmails lawyer and former First Daughter Hayes Morrison (Hayley Atwell, Agent Carter) into leading the group so as to avoid a felony drug charge when she's busted with cocaine. Not wanting to rock the boat of her mother's Senatorial campaign, Morrison accepts, despite the position previously being promised to former Prosecutor Sam Spencer (Shawn Ashmore, The Following). Morrison and Spencer are joined by ex-detective Maxine Bohen (Merrin Dungey, Alias); forensic expert and ex-con Frankie Cruz (Manny Montana, Graceland); and paralegal Tess Larson (Emily Kinney, The Walking Dead), who is seeking redemption after giving an eyewitness testimony as a child which sent an innocent man to jail.

The case of the week in the pilot involves a young black man who was convicted of murdering his girlfriend nearly a decade earlier, when they were still in high school, despite a lack of physical evidence. With the media spotlight so focused on the vilification of African American men, Hayes sees this case as the perfect introduction to the world for the CIU. Interspersed throughout the standard scenes of questioning eyewitnesses, retesting forensics, and digging through old evidence are scenes of Hayes at home with her brother (Looking's Daniel Franzese) and attempting a public reconciliation with her mother at a political fundraiser, though their private relationship remains strained. It's a lot to handle, with the relationships between Hayes and her family members getting short shrift in favor of the sleepy exoneration plot. It's obvious from the get-go that the man, Odell Dwyer, is innocent, so it's just a matter of going through the motions to arrive at the conclusion of who really did kill his girlfriend. Unfortunately, because much of the pilot is devoted to establishing Hayes as a character and the overall story of the CIU, there is too little time spent on making us feel for Odell and care about him. Instead, we're supposed to connect to him because elements of his conviction were culled from several true crime sources, from Serial to Making a Murderer.

The script by Emmy nominee Liz Friedman (Orange is the New Black) is mostly to blame for being overstuffed with characters and scenes. The very brief scene where we meet Hayes's brother Jackson is so short and meaningless that it really could (and should) have been excised, along with one of the several scenes spent with Spencer and Bohen establishing how little they care for Hayes taking over the unit. We get it, Hayes is a divisive figure within the group. The side-stories about politics are similarly uninteresting and serve only to eat up screen time, especially those related to DA Wallace. There are three scenes that I can recall with lines about his political ambitions and his aspirations as they pertain to Hayes's mother, and blah blah. It's too much. The pilot would have been better served focusing on the team alone, with less time spent trying to make Hayes seem funny and cool and edgy and smart. Atwell is talented and charismatic enough to make the audience connect with Hayes without Friedman's script having to resort to stupid lines like, "This collar makes me look like I have HPV." (What the hell does that even mean? I can tell it's supposed to be a joke, but it doesn't make any sense. How does the collar of a dress make one look like they have a sexually transmitted virus?)

That goes for the whole cast, actually. It's full of top-notch, instantly likable actors. Ashmore is boy-next-door handsome, and though his character is murkily defined, I immediately took a liking to him. Dengey emanates a take-no-shit toughness that is totally relatable. Kinney is all wide-eyed sweetness, and Montana's smile and energy are infectious. They elevate the below-average dialogue whenever they can, but clunkers like the HPV joke can't be saved by anyone. Friedman's creating partner Liz Friedlander (Stalker, The Following) directs the pilot with a sure but unremarkable hand. The flashes of crime scenes are straight out of Scandal and CSI, and the murder board discussion scene is filmed just like any episode of Castle.

The reaction is one of both confusion and apathy. How did two talented women assemble a talented, enjoyable cast around a new twist on the procedural format and come up with something so dull? Rather than trying to expand upon the procedural and add new dimension to it, like SVU did to the Law & Order franchise so many years ago or like House did for the medical drama, Conviction just borrows their elements and regurgitates them to bland effect. It's hard to muster any feelings beyond boredom for this show.

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