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Legal dramas can be big hits for networks large and small, and ABC was lucky enough to land Hayley Atwell to star in its new series Conviction. Atwell proved herself as a compelling leading lady in ABC's now-cancelled Agent Carter, so it seemed natural that ABC would keep her around for another starring role. Conviction had the potential to be a brand new take on the typical legal drama with a proven actress in the lead role; instead, Conviction is a show comprised of elements that have been done before, and even Hayley Atwell isn't able to make the main character likable.
Conviction opens with bad girl/skilled lawyer/former First Daughter Hayes Morrison (Hayley Atwell), who is in a sticky situation thanks to cocaine possession. New York City District Attorney (Eddie Cahill) offers her a deal: either he leaves her in jail to be charged and scandalously derail her mother's senatorial campaign, or he pulls some strings to get her out and head the Conviction Integrity Unit. Hayes agrees to lead the CIU, which is a division designed to look back at past high profile convictions to determine whether or not the guilty verdict was accurate. The team, comprised of ambitious lawyer Sam (Shawn Ashmore), former NYPD detective Maxine (Merrin Dungey), paralegal Tess (Emily Kinney) and forensics expert Frankie (Manny Montana) first tackle the case of Odell Dwyer. They must try to determine the innocence or guilt of the young man convicted for murder as Hayes tries to determine whether or not her new job is worth the trouble.
Creators Liz Friedman and Liz Friedlander could have had a recipe for success with Conviction. The Making a Murderer-esque premise is one that could work well for a weekly procedural, and the CIU's deadline of closing cases within five days adds some urgency to the pilot. The promise of high-profile convicts receiving a second chance at proving their innocence could have been unique enough to turn Conviction into must-see TV.
Sadly, Conviction feels more like an episode of any legal drama that has ever featured a lawyer who takes a case too personally due to past problems. It has happened on every Law & Order, ranging from the long-running mothership to the unstoppable SVU. ABC's How to Get Away with Murder has done it. Even USA's Suits has done it.
Still, Hayley Atwell has the acting chops to elevate less-than-stellar material. Between her work across the pond in her native Britain and her performances in American productions, she has previously been able to make any character likable. Hayes just isn't written with enough redeeming qualities to feel like the hero of the story. She makes a few decisions that seem positively heroic in relation to her early attitude in the drama, but that's really not saying much. The pilot doesn't paint the picture of somebody wanting to crusade for justice or even do much for the greater good. The episode goes too far in hitting the marks on making her a bad girl - drugs, rebelliousness, glory in her own scandals - to make her turnaround believable. She isn't helped by the fact that Atwell seems to struggle with maintaining a consistent American accent.
Aside from the accent issue, Hayley Atwell does as well as she could with the pilot. She deserves some credit for being able to walk at a brisk pace in the crazy high heels and tight dresses. The chemistry with Eddie Cahill has enough spark to sell both sexual tension and antagonism. Hayes just doesn't have the dimension to become a particularly engaging character.
The pilot does a pretty good job of giving all the members of the CIU something to do in the case of Odell Dwyer. Everybody gets enough time to highlight the skills that make them necessary members of the team as well as tease a skeleton or two in their closets. Merrin Dungey is a highlight as the no-nonsense former detective who doesn't feel inclined to humor Hayes. The rest of the CIU actors are sort of blandly entertaining. I can't say that any of them are particularly memorable. As a Walking Dead fan, I did get a kick out of watching Emily Kinney serpentining her way through a forest once more. Hopefully they distinguish themselves better in any subsequent episodes.
Pilot episodes are notoriously shaky as the writing tries to introduce a handful of characters as well as a premise within 42 minutes of screen time. Unfortunately, the problems of Conviction seem to go deeper than shaky pilot writing. Hayes Morrison may not be a main character that can sustain an audience in the long run, no matter how well members of the cast do with the material. Fans of legal dramas may enjoy Conviction, and there are some entertaining aspects, but it definitely isn't a standout series of premiere season for me.