Things I Geek About: Conviction on ABC

Given the fact that I am a lawyer’s kid who spent years doing odd jobs for my Dad and working in a law office for a while, you would think that any show involving the legal system would make me want to run away screaming. And normally, you would be right. I know just enough about the law to be an annoying commentator and dangerous writers’ resource (enough to know NOT to give anyone legal advice, because that’s a punishable offense, my Geeklings!), but also growing up in a household where the parents had control of the remote and absolutely loved all the different Law & Order series iterations left me a little tired of the genre. Coincidentally, never—and I do mean Never! —sit through a law procedural with an attorney… unless you’re a masochist who enjoys frequent interruptions of the show to the tune of “that’s not how it works”. Trust me on this.

So, when I heard about the premise of Conviction, my first urge was to scoff and dismiss it as an unrealistic, idealistic fiction, a convenient but untenable fairytale. But after a little bit of research on the subject, I was genuinely shocked to discover that, though relatively new, Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) are a legitimate fact of the legal system, rather than a pipe-dream. According to Criminal Justice Magazine (a publication of the American Bar Association) in their Summer 2016 issue, that if a CIU “can investigate the case from a forensic science angle, they certainly will. But they also review cases for well-known recurrent themes in wrongful convictions, such as faulty eyewitness identification, false confessions, incentivized informants (snitches), prosecutorial misconduct (Brady violations), and invalidated forensic science” (Chandler 15). [I will provide a link to Ms. Chandler’s article, which includes information on the history of such units and a brief examination of her own experiences as chief of the Harris County, Texas CIU.]

However, when I first heard about Conviction, it was not the show’s concept that drew me in, but the actors involved in the project; seriously, it was like several of my favorite show and film fandoms of the past got together and made a baby… A seriously attractive baby! They really had me at Hayley Atwell, to be honest—of Captain America and Agent Carter fame, the loss of which show I am still lamenting, by the way, ABC network execs—but then they added Shawn Ashmore (Smallville, X-Men), Merrin Dungey (who recently played an underappreciated, but phenomenal Ursula on Once Upon a Time), Daniel Franzese (who most girls of a certain age will recognize as the fabulous BFF to Janis from Mean Girls), and Emily Kinney, whose most famous role of Beth Greene on The Walking Dead was my favorite character on that show (and whose death I am still lamenting). The delicious whipped cream to top off this cast of former cinematic loves, though, had to be the addition of Eddie Cahill; while I never hopped on the CSI wagon—except to poke fun at David Caruso’s affinity for sunglasses on the Miami spin-off—I absolutely adored CSI:NY, and Cahill’s Don Flack in particular… The loss of which show I am still what now? That’s right: bitterly lamenting, Geeks!

The collective results of those tragic losses, however, are seriously hard to argue against because of how compelling and interesting these new characters are. It’s the combination of personalities, often conflicting with each other, that has driven the show so far, and I honestly like what I’m seeing. They each have a unique stereotype that they play to and play against simultaneously, which is a huge credit to the casting team and to the showrunners in their creative decisions. I’ll save Hayley and Eddie for last because I’ll have much more to say, but I want to look at each member of the cast and what they bring to their roles that has me hooked as a critic and as a geek.

Let’s start with the actor who I am not familiar with, but whose character adds a great layer of complexity to the overall ensemble chemistry: Manny Montana as Franklin “Frankie” Cruz. Here’s the little we know so far—he’s been to prison before, but obviously either served his time or had his own conviction reversed, so he brings an empathetic voice to the team (but don’t assume that he’s always on the convicted person’s side of the argument); in spite of his criminal past, he’s the team’s forensics expert, which arguably makes him smarter than his colleagues when it comes to proving or disproving the hard evidence of each case; also, based on a couple of quick scenes with minimal dialogue, it appears that he is romantically involved with a man who is currently in prison, making him a confirmed queer character.

It’s refreshing to see someone who is part of a minority or a repressed group be so vital to the team’s success. Montana really sells the role of forensic expert, has the authority and command of self to deliver his lines without sounding like he’s reading the encyclopedia or like he’s condescending to the audience—because, while the writers could err on the side of caution and make his explanations entirely too scientific and inaccessible, or conversely make them too simplistic, the dialogue lands just right for the actor, the characters, and the audience. His past and his sexuality no doubt inform the fact that he has worked hard in order to successfully overcome the legal barriers that arose between him and a profession in law enforcement, but they do not cloud his moral judgment (as some people might insinuate based on sexual preference). So far, he’s the least morally ambiguous member of the team, but given how very little has been actually revealed, that could change at any moment. He’s complex and while a bit of a mystery, I really can’t wait to see what the writers have in store for us and for him.

Shawn Ashmore plays the apparently straight-laced Sam Spencer, the man originally selected to act as the head of the CIU before the job is given to Atwell’s character. He’s clearly ambitious and driven by a sense of moral superiority, highlighted by his willingness to go for his boss’ throat (and possibly her job) when he disagrees with her. But given that he almost certainly incited an inmate to commit a crime, in order to keep that man from being released from prison based on their investigation into his claim of innocence, he’s hardly the moral compass of the show. And given that he worked as an Assistant District Attorney prosecuting gang members, the odds are high of him having more than a few shady dealings with less than savory characters. Bottom line: a part of him thinks of himself as being above the law, which never bodes well for the future; he seems to be a younger version of Cahill’s District Attorney Wallace, who has bigger political plans for his future, which will no doubt lead to plenty of interesting conflicts between them down the road.

Another surprising yet inspired casting/writing choice is Merrin Dungey’s Maxine Bohen, the team’s lead investigator and a veteran NYPD detective (and with the introduction of her father as former NYPD, she’s at least second generation law enforcement). Because while women are definitely being better represented on television in roles of power and authority, it’s still relatively rare for them to be detectives—and given the recent backlash in our country against officer involved shootings, casting a woman of color in the role seems especially relevant and revelatory—Mariska Hargitay (Law & Order: SVU) and Stana Katic (Castle) being exceptions, rather than the rule. If you look at the dialogue itself, save for a very few instances, the character could very easily be played by a man; Maxine comes across as brash and aggressive, quick to jump to the defense of the cops whenever there is a suggestion of misconduct, deliberate or unintentional. And while that certainly plays to the character type, it’s odd to see it being played out contrary to gender expectations… which naturally leads us down the rabbit hole of our being socially acculturated to arbitrary gender norms. Again, because the showrunners and writers have deliberately chosen to defy the “norm”, it makes Ms. Dungey’s performance that much more interesting.

At this point, I do feel the need to give kudos to the costuming department, specifically because they have done a particularly good job with the ladies’ wardrobe choices and color palettes. While all of the ladies could be dressed in unflattering or highly conservative clothes—or, in the case of Atwell’s Hayes Morrison, highly provocative or sexualized outfits—the costuming department has crafted outfits that are both functional and feminine, flattering to each woman’s figure as well as her coloring. While me focusing on this also feeds into our being acculturated to expect an actress’ clothing to “fit” into certain modes and styles based on their character type, in a perfect world we wouldn’t even have to remark on how the wardrobe effects our perception of the characters. But, because we don’t live in a perfect world, it should be noted and praised when the costumers make such a conscious and informed effort to rock the boat.

As can be expected for women who are working in a primarily office environment the ladies tend to be dressed in variations on the pant-suit, but they are hardly off-the-rack or (as often seen in political circles) neat and tidy coordinated sets. The trousers, which are tailored to each woman’s figure, are paired with complimentary blazers and often bright, feminine blouses. They look like women, without overly sexualizing them or softening them (Emily Kinney’s Tess Larson is dressed predominately in muted pastels, but this palette thus far has been indicative of her characterization); it’s has been a seamless blend of function and fashion, without making them look overdressed in unrealistically expensive threads or like they are attempting to dress like their male colleagues. The make-up stylists have also done a great job, crafting a look that conforms to each of the characters’ established personalities (which is still limited, granted); this is noticeable in particular with Ms. Atwell, as her character often goes through several wardrobe changes each episode as a part of her present and her backstory as former First Daughter and child of a current senatorial hopeful. Also, and this has really been a great touch, the colors have tended to be either bold hues, jewel tones, or classic power colors like blue and red—again, without the ladies either seeming overly “feminine” (read: pale, dull, or washed out, which are all indicators of conformity to established gender roles) or hyper-masculine. [So, costuming and styling department of Conviction, your work has not been in vain! Please keep up the amazing work and know that you are appreciated!]

This leads me to Tess Larson, who joined the CIU from the Innocence Project and who was herself an eyewitness to her aunt’s murder… whose testimony conflicted with later examination of DNA evidence, freeing the man convicted. For those who do not know, the Innocence Project was started in order to overturn criminal convictions using newer DNA testing methods and advocating for legal reforms. In comments made to her by Morrison and Bohen, it is assumed that Tess joined the team in order to help “absolve” herself for her part in the wrongful conviction; however, when Bohen hands her a file with the man’s information and tells her that “he’s doing okay,” Tess responds with a rather icy glare and a demand that her colleague mind her own business. This hardly seems like a woman seeking forgiveness, and gives me the impression that she’s looking for justice. Or maybe even revenge. All I know is that so far, she’s the quiet one… and as a “quiet one” myself, I know that these are the ones you need to watch out for.

Hayes’ brother Jackson—both are named after Presidents, which shows you exactly what Mommy Dearest and Daddy were thinking when they named them—is played by Franzese with the kind of sarcastic, but loving teddy bear warmth that you would expect from having seen Mean Girls (although—spoiler alert—their relationship is on the rocks after a botched plea-for-redemption interview, to the point of him kicking her out of their apartment). Until the most recent episode, he seemed more than okay with being the solid, dependable child to Hayes’ rebellious party girl—which, considering that he is his mother’s campaign manager despite her treating him as “un-photogenic since age 11” is all sorts of fucked up—but her disgust with the media storm she created has obviously brought up old issues for him. The rift between the siblings has left Hayes seemingly without any sort of support system, familial or otherwise; her off-the-cuff remarks have made her into a social media hero, but have also potentially damaged DA Conner Wallace’s career and any hopes for a rekindling of their romance, which had been sparking back to life. Given her track record of self-destruction, she could just as easily sink as swim, so it will be interesting how she takes up the latest challenge and whether or not she will choose to attempt to fix her broken relationships.

But let me dig into Hayes now, because so much of what happened in this latest episode (“Mother’s Little Burden”) is the result of what happens in the first few minutes of the Pilot: she is arrested in New York City with an undisclosed amount of cocaine in her purse, and in exchange for not prosecuting her, District Attorney Wallace blackmails her into taking the job as the head of the CIU; because while Hayes seems perfectly content to take her chances in court, her mother and former First Lady, Harper Morrison, is campaigning to become New York’s senator and the scandal could conceivably derail everything. Here’s the thing about Hayes Morrison: we’re supposed to believe that she still gives a damn while being informed in a very small amount of time that she doesn’t give a flying fuck what people think…

And Hayley Atwell absolutely sells it. She goes from cracking prison jokes and bantering with a presumed nemesis (and by bantering, I mean casual flirting with the kind of intense chemistry that puts a lot of long-time, highly developed romantic pairings to shame) to heaving a weary sigh at being “the center of another Morrison family scandal” to brightening up at the possibility of making a deal for herself, even if it means working for a man she might not like at a job that she fully intends to hate. We can see—in large part because the audience now has about a hundred years’ worth of tabloid reported child-celebrity outrageous behavior knowledge—that what she’s doing is how she has coped with having lived in the limelight against her will; because her life and her privacy were constantly invaded without her consent, she turned around and decided to give people something to talk about. Most of this still falls under the unfortunate umbrella of the writers telling the audience, rather than showing us, but so far her attitude, her dialogue, and her actions have supported this—at one point breaking into Wallace’s office and pretending to snort cocaine in order to get him to fire her. She’s very aware that she’s messy and self-destructive which, writing a self-aware female character, in and of itself is odd and rare. (It shouldn’t be, but it is.)

Because my parents put me in therapy with a psychiatrist as a young teen (and before that even, with a church counsellor), I understand Hayes and her mindset at a very personal level. While my issues stem primarily from genetically inherited clinical depression—where I see hers as an anger management issue developing from her stressed and unhealthy relationship to her parents—I have gone through similar patterns of behavior and still fight against the impulse to this day. Even though Hayes understands her impulse to misbehave or to push away the people she cares about, it’s almost impossible for her to resist an opportunity to self-sabotage. She may consciously choose (for example) to have sex as often as she chooses and not apologize to anyone for it, including having affairs with some of her law students, but her subconscious definitely has a hand in pushing her to take more risk and push more boundaries than she should. However, she’s not an unfeeling misanthrope or a genius who enjoys playing God with peoples’ lives; what makes her so compelling is that Hayes obviously cares very deeply about people, and her pattern of self-sabotage is driven in part by her need to distance herself from her feelings. I can practically hear her mother telling her as a young child that she was being too sensitive and needed to develop a thicker skin… And Hayes managed that a little too well. She developed armor to protect herself and hide behind, but that does not prevent her from being crushed and ashamed when faced with the devastation and anger of a murder victim’s grieving mother; nor does it help her cope with hearing directly from her own mother that “being just your mother was a luxury I never had” and that she was conceived, born, and raised as window-dressing for her parents’ careers. This moment, which comes in the second episode after Hayes learns that her mother fed information on her directly to DA Wallace, is incredibly telling for the character and beautifully acted by Ms. Atwell; the crushed hope, of making her mother proud, as well as the hurt and betrayal evinced show us exactly how much Hayes is capable of feeling.

And then there is her dedication to the law and her legal brilliance. In short Hayes Morrison, while written for a woman, is the kind of character you normally see men playing. And not just in the sense of her sexual freedom and lack of body image issues. She’s smart, she’s aggressive, and she’s dominant in a field that is still statistically dominated by men. And she does it with a flair for drama and a style that puts a certain genius detective to shame, supported by a team that is half female and half minority. She’s sexy without pandering to the men around her and playing to their expectations. Moreover, once established in her position (and, yes, there’s plenty of time for her to sabotage this too) she’s tenacious in her quest to uncover the truth and ensure that justice be done. She’s well aware—in the aftermath of her arrest being made public—that her position comes from privilege and a miscarriage of justice in her case, but she appears genuinely determined to turn her life around; she does recognize that, while well beyond her second chance, this is her last chance at redemption (with her family, with her former flame Wallace, and with her life).

This latest episode ended on quite the down note, with Wallace pointing out that he will likely be held accountable for securing her the position and lose his own as district attorney and her brother telling their doorman to not let her upstairs, but I am incredibly eager to see how Hayes handles this newest emotional challenge—knowing that she is getting karma despite her decision to turn her life around may not help her get through this crisis in a healthy way, but it should make for some interesting drama. Ms. Atwell’s acting has been superb thus far in making Hayes realistic and relatable, and the writing has hit the bullseye every time. I’m already salivating for the next episode.

Last, but certainly not least, I do need to give credit to Eddie Cahill for his performance as Conner Wallace. When we first meet him—flashes of him giving a press conference to announce his hiring of Hayes to head the CIU interspersed with his jailhouse conversation convincing her to join—he seems like the stereotypical smooth-talking politician, but there’s definitely more to him than meets the eye. First off, as already mentioned, the chemistry between Hayes and Conner is fantastic; while Atwell and Cahill could overplay the sexual tension (especially when they actually discuss her sleeping with students), they both appear detached and unaffected… but excessively casual body language combined with intense eye contact conveys an investment in the conversation that goes well beyond the present topic. Even if we weren’t explicitly told later that the pair had been lovers before, the actors confirm it in a glance… as well as the sexiest hand-to-mouth contact since Once Upon a Time’s famous Captain Swan first-aid scene in its second season. [Even when they are standing still in a scene, both actors tend to lean toward the other—predominately with their hips—which points to their sexual/sensual awareness of each other. It’s very subtle, but damn effective.]

Furthermore, it becomes obvious that despite whatever happened in the past, Wallace still cares very deeply for Hayes. While this may not seem all that revolutionary or unexpected for the character, it’s the manner in which he shows this caring that flips the script. Rather like Lisa Cuddy with Dr. House, Wallace exhibits a great deal of care and patience in his dealings with her—pushing her when necessary, calling her on her bullshit (like with the fake cocaine), but often waiting for her to come to him in order to help her work through various problems arising from each case. Save for two occasions, one of which was to defend himself against an accusation that he betrayed her in the past, he hasn’t even raised his voice to her; and while they have had more than one confrontation he has not been physically aggressive either—attempting to intimidate her by invading her personal space, etc.—in spite of her deliberately provoking him. He’s certainly not willing to be her doormat, but his spatial and conversational consciousness is typically a more feminine attribute than a masculine one. [Wallace does “invade” her space when he calls her bluff on the cocaine, which is really an antihistamine, but in every other scene Hayes is the one who makes the choice to move closer.] Again, very simple, but diametrically opposed to what we have been taught as a society to expect in terms of male/female behavior and in terms of post-relationship interactions.

At the risk of sounding melodramatic (or like a social justice manifesto), Hayes Morrison is the kind of “strong female character” that I have been waiting for all my life. I like that she doesn’t have her shit altogether. I like that her personal life is a mess, that she’s self-aware but still finds it easier to maintain unhealthy patterns than to change. I have different issues and different ways of undermining my own progress, but I see a lot of myself in her. She’s flawed and afraid to be vulnerable. She’s made more than a few mistakes and wrong decisions in terms of her career. She desperately wants the love and approval of the people she cares for, but has been burned before and is always waiting for the other shoe to drop. While she’s not focused on finding fulfillment in her career in the first episode, by the end of the fourth it is obvious that she has found her calling; it isn’t often that we see a woman, either in the real world or in fiction, find emotional satisfaction in anything other than a romantic relationship or motherhood. As someone who has had both of those traditional avenues blocked in one way or another over the course of my life, I’m at a point where I yearn for a narrative and a character for whom neither of those appear to be a burning priority. She’s passionate about the law, about justice, and isn’t about to tell convenient lies in order to make other people happy. And the writers have done an amazing job at getting me invested in her character, in seeing how she deals with the messes she has created and how she chooses to rebuild or move on from the relationships that had a hand in forging the woman she is today. I’m sure that there are flaws in this show somewhere, but given how other television writers have let me down of late and how this one has obviously been crafted with care and attention to detail, I have yet to find them.

If you’re interested in a balmy oasis of stellar acting and good writing, feel free to join me in my newest obsession and… stay geeky, my friends! —J.J.


Criminal Justice Magazine article:


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