I’ve always wanted to use the word “insouciance” in a review, but I never heard anyone say it out loud until the second episode of Conviction. On ABC’s new legal drama, Hayley Atwell plays a troubled, debaucherous, crusading, brilliant, sardonic attorney. Her name is “Hayes Morrison,” because all hip TV characters are named for one-term presidents. (True story: In the original draft, her first name was “Carter.”) Speaking of presidents, Hayes is related to one: In the pilot episode, someone looks at her and exclaims, “Hey, you’re that president’s daughter!” That president’s daughter: What poetry!
We meet Hayes in a prison cell, modeling going-out clothes the morning after; behind bars, she dances by herself. Her crime was possession of cocaine. As punishment, the District Attorney of New York City (sleazy-charmy Eddie Cahill) gives her a job. (And they say there’s no justice!) Hayes takes charge of the Conviction Integrity Unit, a cold-case lawyer squad scouring recent judicial history and overturning wrongful convictions. In the second episode, the resident boyish, untrustworthy, careerist attorney (Shawn Ashmore doing Matt Czuchry) is off to prison to chat with a convict. Hayes tells him to bring along his colleague, the ex-convict investigator with a heart of gold (Manny Montana). But what Hayes actually says is: “His ex-con insouciance counterbalances your prosecutorial squareness.”
It’s one of the worst-written lines on television this year. Thank god Atwell says it. Atwell excavated dry teasing wit from the bland too-niceness Agent Carter. Given a wild character, she shines. Hayes needs to be Chelsea Clinton and Paris Hilton, stylish and lazy and brilliant and approachable. She graduated top of her class from Harvard Law, won 95 percent of her cases as a defense attorney, can solve a 10-year-old case in five days or less – and, in the middle of a CIU briefing, she strips down to her underwear to try on clothes for her mother’s fundraiser. Did I mention her mother (Bess Armstrong) is running for senate? And that, despite her busy career, Hayes’ mother still has time to collude with the aforementioned New York City DA, who wants to be mayor but also maybe wants Hayes? “I’m never sleeping with someone already in bed with my mother,” says Hayes, who immediately begins plotting the DA’s downfall. A pleasant side effect of this year’s election: Nothing about TV politics feels fake anymore.
The fun of Conviction is how it tosses such a high-camp character into a thoughtfully of-the-moment legal arena. In the pilot, the CIU investigates an imprisoned high school football star (Maurice Williams) who maybe didn’t kill his girlfriend. The convict is black; the cops and lawyers who imprisoned him are white; and while you’re pondering that, SMASH CUT TO Hayes hate-flirting with the DA, pouting toward her mom, dancing in the house-sized apartment she shares with her campaign-manager brother (Daniel Franzese).
The dissonance almost works. There’s a dark comedy at the core of Conviction. The DA just created the CIU to burnish his reputation: Setting a wrongfully-accused attractive black man free will be great publicity for his mayoral campaign. But Conviction doesn’t have the courage of its, errr, principles. It wants to prove the justice system is broken, but it still believes justice comes from a cool office with glass walls and attractive people. The show has a very network-y ticking clock element – every case needs to be solved in five days or less. So Conviction substitutes one legal fallacy (every convict is guilty) for another (every wrongful conviction can be overturned in one business week). And Conviction can’t quite commit to the potential of its own anti-hero. Everyone keeps telling Hayes that, deep down, she’s a good person – seriously, everyone tells her this – but we can clearly see she’s a magnificent terror.
Unfortunately, Conviction’s squareness counterbalances its insouciance. Hey, I did it! C+