It would have been impossible to imagine say 5 years ago that the exoneration of the wrongfully convicted has become so mainstream and commonplace that it would be the subject of a network prime-time drama. But tonight, ABC unveiled “Conviction” starring Hayley Atwell in the lead role as a lawyer heading the NY County DA’s newly-formed Conviction Integrity Unit. The show does not pass up on any cliche from the typical TV police procedural show – the love-hate relationship between the DA and his appointee; the trite speeches about justice and “doing the right thing”; and the last minute mystery witness who provides the essential clue to solving the case – right in time for the last commercial break. But it isn’t the old worn out formula that hurts the show, it’s the show’s flippant attitude towards Conviction Integrity Units (and reality) that really sinks the ship.
For starters, Hayley Atwell’s character is selected to run the unit under some – let’s call them unusual – circumstances. She has just been arrested in NY County for possession of cocaine after a night of partying when she is visited by the NY County DA whose apparently an old flame (of course). Here’s the deal he is willing to make: He will drop the charges and make the case go away if she agrees to take on the job of head of CIU. Sure she’s qualified – graduating at the top of her Harvard Law School class and winning 95% of her cases as a defense attorney, a percentage rate unknown by any lawyer in the criminal defense community besides Perry Mason. But the real reason why the politically ambitious DA wants her at the helm is that her father was recently President of the United States and her mother is running for the US Senate. (Sound familiar?) Her Mom informs her that the DA told her that if she fails at the job he will upgrade the charges against her to possession with intent to sell – and he’ll push for jail time. Nothing like being extorted through the use of a wrongful conviction to get you to head the wrongful conviction unit. So to save herself and her mother’s campaign, she reluctantly takes the job. Oh but there’s a catch – the DA told her she has only five (5) days to work on each case because, you know, budget constraints. At the end of the 5 days- 5 days! – she must decide whether to vacate or uphold the conviction.
Why are you still reading this? That last paragraph should have put you off of this TV show forever. But alright you want more I guess. In typical TV fashion, the next ten minute section is devoted to her just phoning it in. Telling her appointed right-hand-man (who was of course passed over for the job) to do all the legal work as she intends to just be a figurehead; texting through meetings; and leaving briefings in the middle of someone’s sentence because she has to attend a fundraiser. But then, her forensic specialist (a tough gay ex-con with a heart of gold), yells at her for her indifference and it turns her around – cue the crescendo of sappy music as she leaves her mother’s fundraiser to go straight to Riker’s to speak with the defendant in the CIU’s first case. Never mind all the factual errors implicit with that scenario – the defendant would not be at Riker’s Island, he would be in some Upstate prison and of course you can’t just waltz in to a penitentiary at 10PM to chat with an inmate, even if you are wearing Louboutins. The rest of her team is rounded out by a detective who says she sees her role as making sure that cops don’t get disrespected (at least that’s accurate) and a paralegal who, when she was a child, accused someone of a crime only to have that person be exonerated years later. Get it – she’s atoning for her sin.
It is the writers of this show who must atone however. Here is what they do to get you to understand how “wild and crazy” this former First Daughter is: (a) She tries to get herself fired by snorting fake coke in front of her boss;(b) She tells a detective who worked the case back in the day that she will let him feel her breasts if he hands over his notes; (c) she is on probation from her University teaching position for sleeping with several of her students and (d) In the middle of a full team meeting, some lackey brings in a rack of dresses her mother wants her to try on right away for the fundraiser, so she strips down to a bra and panties in the conference room and continues the meeting while she tries on the dresses.
Of course, on Day 5, it all works out. They track down the ex-girlfriend of a guy who used to live with the victim’s mother. Wouldn’t you know it? All these years later she still kept hidden a gun he had tucked away in a drawer. Of course, it was the murder weapon in the CIU case. Cue the sappy music again as the innocent young man is freed and hugs his Mom. Cut to her walking back in the conference room (fully dressed this time) looking over the piles of new case and saying “Who’s next?”
These are just the quick highlights, there are way too many wrong statements and scenarios to mention. To make viewers think that the Manhattan DA would blackmail someone into heading a CIU is ludicrous. To make viewers think its this easy to exonerate a cold case in 5 days is obnoxious. To make viewers watch this on the eve of Wrongful Conviction Day is criminal.