[This is a review of the Conviction series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
Earlier this year, it was reported that Agent Carter star Hayley Atwell had been cast in the pilot of Conviction. Although the show had yet to be ordered to series, the casting caused fans of Agent Carter to wonder whether it was indicative of the Marvel show’s cancelation. Atwell assured fans there were no guarantees Conviction would be picked up or Agent Carter would be canceled — and ABC was prepared to make sure the actress could star on both shows at the same time. However, Agent Carter was, in fact, canceled and Conviction picked up, which at least offers fans of Atwell a new show to watch featuring the actress.
For its part, Conviction wades into the trend popularized in recent years of media tackling true crime stories from somewhat of an entertainment standpoint, mixed with a search for the truth. Kicked off in earnest by Serial, a podcast from the creators of NPR’s This American Life, then helped along by documentary series like HBO’s The Jinx and Netflix’s Making a Murderer, as well as the more recent film, Amanda Knox. Conviction, however, takes the true crime premise and gives it the procedural treatment, introducing viewers to former first daughter and lawyer Hayes Morrison (Atwell) who joins the government’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU).
The series premiere of Conviction, ‘Pilot’ — written by co-creators Liz Friedman (Elementary) and Liz Friedlander (Stalker, The Secret Circle) while Friedlander serves as director — sees Hayes facing serious consequences for drug possession. In order to avoid jail time, she makes a deal with New York District Attorney Conner Wallace (Eddie Cahill) to head up the CIU, where she and her team of lawyers, detectives, and forensic experts have five days to find evidence in order to overturn wrongful convictions.
As with any procedural, the long term success of the series will be dependent upon the lead — or co-leads — and their team of supporting players. Conviction makes it clear early on in the pilot that the series’ long term success will rest on the shoulders of Atwell, and the actress proves over the course of the episode that she is more than up to the task. Atwell’s Hayes Morrison is equally the dramatic, entitled daughter of a former president and the genuinely exceptional lawyer — with enough self-doubt and self-destruction to rival TV’s male anti-heroes.
The pilot for Conviction gets the ball rolling right from the start, introducing Hayes at what would appear to be her lowest point — facing prison for possession of cocaine — though she jokes about Orange is the New Black. When Wallace offers her the position as the director of the CIU, leveraging her mother’s poll numbers and her own previous scandals, Hayes takes the job reluctantly. However, she quickly works out that Wallace has higher political aspirations for himself and the CIU are part of those aspirations. These scenes, although delivering necessary, if cumbersome, exposition and motivations for both Hayes and Wallace, are carried off well by the performances of Atwell and Cahill, who have chemistry to spare.
The emotional core of Conviction really locks into place later in the episode. After setbacks while investigating the CIU’s first case, Hayes appeals to Wallace to fire her — using every trick up her sleeve from fake cocaine to genuine self-doubt. Then, one of the members of her team accuses Hayes of acting too blasé toward the future of the man whose freedom is in their hands. It all culminates at the fundraiser for Hayes’ mother’s senate campaign, where Hayes’ mother, Harper (Bess Armstrong), gives an ultimatum — that Hayes can either do her job at the CIU well or go to prison — in hopes that her daughter will apply herself to the work. The scene acts as a turning point for Hayes, who may have plenty of talent and connections but struggles with self-destruction.
Since the pilot episode gives Hayes this turning point, it will be interesting to see if it sticks — though it would be a much more compelling character arc if she were to struggle to apply herself and avoid self-destructive behaviors.
Still, while the Conviction pilot offers a compelling introduction to Hayes as the central character of the procedural, the other members of the team don’t have nearly as much development in the episode. Fellow lawyer Sam Spencer (Shawn Ashmore), lead detective Maxine Bohen (Merrin Dungey), forensic expert Frankie Cruz (Manny Montana), and paralegal Tess Larson (Emily Kinney) make up the CIU team. Though they aren’t given the same due as Hayes or Wallace, Sam, Frankie, and Tess are given especially intriguing snippets into their pasts, presents, and hopes for the future within the pilot.
Although Conviction is set up as a true crime-inspired procedural tackling the investigations of wrongful conviction claims, the series has also threaded plenty of ongoing storylines for each of the characters — all within the span of the pilot. That said, the case-of-the-week for the pilot is perhaps its weakest aspect. Though the case of Odell Dwyer is realistic and serves its purpose in establishing the framework in which the series will operate, the case is wrapped up too easily with Hayes and Maxine (almost literally) finding the smoking gun that proves someone else was guilty all along.
Of course, as the pilot episode, Conviction had plenty to establish over the course of an hour and of all the aspects that could have been neglected in order to set the stage for the season to come, choosing the case was the smartest move. Between the emotional depth of Atwell’s character, the brief glimpses of more compelling arcs for the members of the CIU team, and the timely premise of tackling wrongful accusations, Conviction offers up an exciting pilot.
All in all, Conviction may not be the next true crime craze along the lines of Serial or Making a Murderer, but it does fall into the same theme of seeking out the truth while providing entertainment to viewers. Still, although Conviction mixes its timely crime procedural aspects with those of a compelling legal drama, the new ABC series truly shines due to Atwell’s performance. So long as Conviction continues to allow Atwell to shine, and gives the show’s supporting players more to do, the series will win over fans of Agent Carter and casual viewers alike.
Conviction continues with ‘Bridge and Tunnel Vision’ Monday, October 10 at 10pm on ABC.
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