Most Americans are familiar with British actress Hayley Atwell thanks to her star-making turn as Steve Rogers’ love interest Peggy Carter in the Captain America movies. Her subsequent Marvel television offering Agent Carter was seen by many fewer eyeballs, but was an even stronger vehicle for the actress, allowing her to be strong, compelling, sympathetic, and fierce by turns in each episode.
The sting of the unfortunate cancellation of Agent Carter last Spring was somewhat mitigated by the fact that ABC clearly saw what a talent they had in Atwell, signing her to a new pilot before the news of her Marvel show’s fate was even official. She’s back on TV this Fall with the lead role in CONVICTION, a legal drama that hasn’t exactly decided what kind of show it wants to be just yet.
Here, Atwell stars as Hayes Morrison, the wild child former First Daughter who apparently lives to make poor life choices. Her mother is now running for Senate, and Hayes’ party girl ways are becoming a problem. After she gets arrested for cocaine possession, Hayes is forced to take a deal from New York District Attorney Connor Wallace – the charges will be buried if she accepts a job with him. He names her the head of his newly created Conviction Integrity Unit, a team that’s been basically created so that Wallace can burnish his criminal justice credentials before running for NYC mayor. The CIU’s job is to investigate old cases where there may or may not have been a wrongful conviction, and look for new evidence that may or may not overturn them.
The premise of this show feels very timely – thanks to properties like Serial and Making a Murderer, investigating the stories of the questionably convicted is a thing right now. Conviction takes that trend and combines it with Shondaland – at times, this pilot feels as though someone posed the question of what would happen if Serial and Scandal somehow merged. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – Conviction has snappy dialogue, strong women and seriously great clothes. But the drama’s first hour is extremely uneven, with a lot of cringe-worthy dialogue.
Hayes is given rein over a team of various other investigative professionals, and most of them are written as little more than caricatures – the veteran detective, the over-eager assistant with a secret past, the former ex-con turned crusader for justice, the shady ADA who has it out for Hayes, since she pretty much stole his job. But, happily, Conviction’s ensemble cast is strong enough to handle the fact that they’re largely playing ciphers at this point. Alias alum Merrin Dungey is an early favorite as former cop turned CIU lead investigator Maxine, and The Walking Dead’s Emily Kinney’s aggressive earnestness as Tess manages to come off more appealing than annoying. The supporting cast here is really very good, and largely better than the writing in the pilot deserves.
The group’s first case together involves a young black football star who was convicted by an all-white jury of murdering his girlfriend in upstate New York. The young man still insists he is innocent, and the CIU has to sift through the evidence and witnesses from the original trial before deciding whether the original conviction should be vacated.
For some reason, every case that the CIU investigates needs to be solved one way or the other in five days. This makes no sense – the Innocence Project, for example, can spend months working appeals – and is nothing but an artificially inserted tension meant to ensure that the show can maintain a procedural, case-of-the-week format. But it lets everyone run around and panic and get emotional, which I guess makes for good TV. At least it certainly never slows down. But the ending, when it comes, feels overly convenient, and more than a little rushed.
So: Is Conviction any good? The truth is that we don’t know for sure yet.
Pilots are strange television creatures. It’s very difficult for a first episode of a show to balance introducing all the main characters, explaining the series’ premise, and telling a contained story – all within roughly 42 minutes. Conviction is no different, and will likely take several episodes to settle in to a real identity. (My general rule of thumb with new series is to give it at least three episodes before rendering a final verdict.) I expect that those of us who desperately want Atwell to find a post-Agent Carter series that’s worthy of her will keep watching, hoping that Conviction will become that show. Maybe it can. There are moments of interest here, and several characters that could grow into something more than they are. Will they? Only time will tell.
At the moment, Conviction certainly doesn’t seem to know what kind of character it wants Hayes to be. Is she a bad girl antihero who hates everything about her clients? A self-destructive mess who just needs to find a true purpose in life? A legal wizard willing to pull all-nighters and abandon her fancy parties in the name of seeking justice? The character boomerangs between all of these things within the space of an episode, and it’s hard to get a firm handle on how we’re supposed to view her.
Atwell clearly relishes playing the unlikable, outrageous side of Hayes – the character is basically light years removed from Peggy Carter, so it must be great fun for her – but the show seems hesitant to commit to making their heroine a true bad girl. Seriously, at least four different people take the time to tell Hayes that she’s a really, really a good person, deep down, over the course of this episode.
Conviction, as yet, doesn’t seem like its picked a side.
Season 1, Episode 1 (S01E01)
Conviction airs Monday at 10PM on ABC
Lacy is a digital strategist by day and a writer because it seemed like a good start to her supervillain origin story. Favorite things include: Sansa Stark, British period dramas, and that leather duster that Aeryn Sun wears in Farscape.
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Lacy Baugher | Contributor