In the ripple effect of TV, a lot of series begin to look similar. After the success of a hospital show, we will see several medical dramas emerge. After the confounding mysteries of Lost, instantly confusing and forgettable series like FlashForward and The Nine briefly invaded network television. So, segueing off of the success of Scandal, even non-Shondaland Shondaland shows are still popping up, especially on ABC, Rhimes’ home network. Right on the heels of (it wishes) Notorious, comes legal drama Conviction, which also stars a strong, somewhat troubled female hero leading a gang of stereotypes. Agent Carter’s Hayley Atwell looks oddly out of time in modern-day dress (still tackling that American accent, though) as she lugs around the ambitious ass-kisser (Shawn Ashmore, Marvel’s Iceman), the not-as-innocent-as-she-appears ingenue (Emily Kinney), the hardened veteran (Merrin Dungey), and the ex-con with a heart of gold (Manny Montana). You could slide these four in as Annalise Keating’s legal team on How To Get Away With Murder and no one would blink much.
With Atwell’s desire to get an Agent Carter movie made (and her protest against a certain Civil War kiss), and the bullshit reason why the show wasn’t saved, you get the feeling that ABC offered her Conviction as a consolation prize, and not a great one, either. Here she’s Hayes, a former first daughter with a racy past, who gets gifted with her very own governmental department (the Conviction Integrity Unit!) that will investigate possibly wrongfully determined old cases. (But, they’re not the Innocence Project. Really, they have to trot that out at least once an episode so no one gets confused.) Part of the problem is the apparent complexity of Atwell’s character: We see tabloid headlines that suggest she’s a screw-up, and when we meet her she’s in jail for a coke bust. Yet she’s a law professor who’s also a former defense attorney with a 95 percent success rate. We’re all for complex characters, but that’s different than getting a character like this immediately thrust at us and being told, “She’s complex!” We hear it from her powerful mother (the ageless Bess Armstrong), a Hillary Clinton clone who’s now running for Senate, and the district attorney who’s hired her. But despite that drug bust, there is very little about Hayes that leads us to believe she’s a cokehead: We should all look so good after a coke bender, or hungover.
Worst of all, there’s once again the hot will-they/won’t-they romantic interest (another Shondaland staple) in Eddie Cahill, who was more believable as a boy toy on Friends than he is here as that district attorney who hires Hayes. In the first few episodes, we’re already into those kissing-but-not scenes—again, without a lot of backstory. It’s like Conviction threw us in the deep end around episode six, expecting us to sink or swim.
And so, we are likely to sink. Only Atwell is an out-and-out draw, looking the furthest thing from hungover as she strides around, jumping from charity galas for her mother (an excuse for some great evening wear) to jailhouse visits to the wrongfully accused. Like Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating before her, Hayes has a brilliant mind prone to sudden realizations and brainstorms (instantly able to tell that someone’s spent time in prison, or identifying an eyewitness from a decades-old trial), most of which are going to crack that case wide open! Forensics fans could find a lot to like here, what with crime reenactments and animal carcasses to determine exactly what time flies will be attracted by blood. The whodunnit aspect is helpful, as viewers have to wait to nearly the bitter end to find out who the actual guilty party is (although, if you’ve ever seen a cop show before, a victim’s mother randomly mentioning her boyfriend instantly raises some flags).
But why is the team given the unnecessarily arbitrary deadline of only five days? Why is one high-profile prison release met by a score of reporters and another by crickets? If Hayes was a longtime defense attorney, why is she so undone by the humanity of every case she has to deal with? These apparent holes could be helped along by the fact that Conviction co-creators Liz Friedman (House, Xena: Warrior Princess, Jessica Jones) and Liz Friedlander fall short in the Shonda Rhimes department. Friedman has some decent cred, but Friedlander is a music video director for Avril Lavigne and Blink-182, whose previous longest TV stint was directing and co-executive producing the worst show of the 2015 TV season, Stalker. Her past is evident in her direction of a the pilot, as she shoots most everything like a music video, with parallel shots of walks down long halls, and people unexpectedly dancing in jail cells or at the end of a long day. The acoustic guitar that scores Hayes’ first big talk with her mother is downright oppressive. Montages that show the different consequences and circumstances of everyone on the damn team, backgrounded by some uplifting music, are also an apparent requisite. The attention to artistic detail is appreciated, but needs more longevity: This might be enough to captivate for a three-minute song, but not for an hour-long legal drama.
It boggles the mind that the (admittedly cancellation-happy) ABC would trash the well-received Agent Carter for this untested Scandal-How To Get Away With Murder hybrid. Hayley Atwell tries her hardest, but Conviction has too many clichés for her to overcome single-handedly. She deserves a better show than this one. In fact, we all do.