‘Conviction’ Review: An Injustice How This Show Wastes Hayley Atwell

ABC’s new legal drama is no substitute for “Scandal”

Last Updated: October 3, 2016 @ 12:53 PM

Fans who have been missing “Scandal” on the fall TV schedule are about to miss it even more. As the successful ABC drama awaits a midseason debut thanks to Kerry Washington‘s real life pregnancy, the Alphabet network is hoping another politco drama can take its place in the form of Hayley Atwell‘s “Conviction.”

The series, which was created by Liz Friedlander and is obviously designed as a star vehicle for Atwell – the former Agent Peggy Carter on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. –  is a mess from beginning to end, full of clichéd characters and confusing rules. Viewers meet leading lady Hayes Morrison in the opening minutes at “her worst,” which for her means looking perfectly coiffed and in jail following a supposed bust for cocaine.

She quickly strikes up a deal with the D.A. (and her former lover, perhaps) Connor Wallace (Eddie Cahill), to lead his newly formed Conviction Integrity Unit in order to make her charges go away. Not because she’s afraid of jail, but because she also happens to be the former First Daughter and her mother is now looking to achieve a higher political office. So scandal is the last thing this family needs. Why is she so perfect for this high-profile job anyway? Because she also graduated top of her class at law school, naturally.

All of that may be interesting (or even plausible in a soapy kind of way) if it had anything to do with the rest of the pilot. For a character that was careless enough to get caught with drugs and supposedly has a pretty big party-girl past, there are no traces of that in the Hayes Morrison whom viewers meet in the first hour. Instead, they’re greeted by a quippy, smartest-person-in-the-room type who knows her own intelligence and works super-hard to prove she doesn’t care. Yet she dresses in haute couture and is annoyingly great at reading people, which not only proves she actually cares an awful lot, but more important makes her pretty unlikable.

Given the lack of interestingly flawed female leads on television, that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the rest of “Conviction” were not so predictable and slapped-together. The cases Hayes and her team work on should be a stomping ground for emotional storytelling; instead the narrative focuses on the team trying to solve them within the ludicrously limited timeframe of five days. That means the real killer has to be easier to find than a game of Where’s Waldo so that the case can be solved by episode’s end. Yet if it’s that easy, why couldn’t the original investigators and prosecutors do it in the first place? Is everyone else that bad at their jobs? It’s problematic storytelling at best given the high-concept procedural whodunits that have gained popularity with viewers in recent years. Without any kind of emotional punch or time to care about these people who were wrongly convicted, the leading characters need to be incredibly compelling to make up for it.

The “Conviction” cast (which also includes Shawn Ashmore, Merrin Dungey, Emily Kinney and Manny Montana) is certainly fine and the actors do what they can within the confines of the story, but all these characters all have hidden agendas and secrets that make them more like the Breakfast Club than a highly specialized team of saviors. There doesn’t seem to be a purist among them who actually cares about setting wrongs right, which almost seems like a prerequisite when you’re working for public office. Haven’t any of these people had background checks?

It’s a shame really – for Atwell, for the rest of the cast and for the concept itself. Because while there is certainly great, emotional drama to be mined from a show that overturns wrongful convictions and perhaps makes a larger social commentary about the state of the justice system, “Conviction” sadly isn’t it.

“Conviction” premieres Monday at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.