The series premiere of Conviction, starring Hayley Atwell (from the criminally underrated and dearly departed Agent Carter), arrives at just the right time with the right mix of ingredients: A disaffected former First Daughter with a brilliant legal mind and a penchant for partying; a former First Lady running for office (sound familiar?) who wants to keep secret her daughter’s wild-child ways; and an always-compelling premise that centers on a ragtag legal team investigating old (and, possibly, wrongfully resolved) criminal cases.
In other words, it’s got everything — a strong female lead, a talented supporting cast, political intrigue, criminal justice, and (already!) the makings of a will-they-or-won’t-they romance or two. But I’m getting ahead of myself… Allow me to introduce you to the key characters now taking up residence on your TV in the Monday Castle timeslot:
Meet the Players
- Hayes Morrison: We meet the aforementioned former First Daughter, played by Atwell, as she’s sitting in a jail cell. Well, she’s actually stretching and dancing a bit, like she hasn’t got a care in the world despite being busted for cocaine possession. You definitely get the feeling this isn’t her first visit. Hayes is beautiful and brilliant with an attitude to match, Conviction‘s equivalent of Scandal‘s Olivia Pope. She’s soon visited by a mystery man in an expensive suit, who turns out to be…
- D.A. Conner Wallace: My first thought upon seeing Eddie Cahill (CSI: NY) is that the dude has AGED, and not well. By the end of the episode, though, I once again had googly eyes for the guy formerly known as Tag (a name I never quite understood, tbh) who stole Rachel Green’s heart on Friends. Anyway, Cahill plays Wallace, a D.A. with political aspirations who cuts Hayes a deal. In exchange for her taking a job as head of NYC’s new Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), he won’t press charges and her arrest won’t be splashed all over the news. Their quick and (somewhat) flirty banter reveals the two have faced off in court many times, though their past probably goes deeper than that. But what’s a girl to do when faced with the prospect of prison or being blackmailed into a job she doesn’t want? She goes to work with Conner’s pre-assembled legal team at the CIU, including…
- Sam Spencer: Shawn Ashmore is apparently doomed to play characters who are ever the sidekick and never quite the leader, but he’s less thrilled to follow Hayes than he was to be Kevin Bacon’s no. 2 on The Following. All we really know about Sam is he was supposed to lead the CIU, but Conner bumped him in favor of Hayes. He convinces Sam to stay on with the promise he’ll be rewarded for his loyalty when makes a run for mayor in a few years. In fact, Hayes had accused Conner of creating the CIU to sell himself as a compassionate, electable leader.
- Maxine Bohen: The CIU’s lead investigator introduces herself by telling Hayes she didn’t vote for her father. “Neither did I,” Hayes replies, and this could be the beginning of a beautiful (and at times, acrimonious) friendship. Maxine’s the hardened, no-nonsense veteran of the bunch.
- Tess Larson: The Walking Dead‘s Emily Kinney plays the newbie paralegal who’s quick to spout off helpful statistics about eyewitness testimony — apparently, cross-race identification is especially problematic. She seems eager to prove herself, and we later learn she once gave testimony in a case that was later overturned on DNA evidence. Like Hayes, she seems to want some redemption of her own for her role in putting an innocent man in jail.
- Franklin “Frankie” Cruz: Manny Montana (Graceland) is in charge of forensics at the CIU, and he’s also an ex-con who spent time in prison for an undisclosed crime (Hayes outs him when she spots his old prison tattoos). Frankie’s own criminal past seems to influence his willingness to side with the defendant in the CIU’s first case, and we also get some pretty cool scenes in which he reenacts the crime in an attempt to disprove the prosecution’s timeline.
NEXT: Was justice already served in the CIU’s first case?
Case No. 1: Odell Dwyer
Conner instructs Hayes to give him a happy ending with the CIU’s first case, and the clock is ticking: They only have five days to see if the original conviction holds up. In the case of Odell Dwyer, convicted for the murder of his high-school girlfriend eight years prior, his guilt or innocence is up in the air for much of the episode. For every piece of evidence that suggests he was wrongfully convicted — his whereabouts on the night in question make it unlikely he could be at the scene of the crime, at least according to the prosecution’s timeline — there’s another that seems to reinforce his guilt, like his status as a onetime steroid user and the fact he tried to buy a gun from his drug dealer. For what it’s worth, I found Odell to be warm and believable right off the bat — the perfect “good-looking black poster boy” Hayes later describes him to be.
The team goes to work examining the evidence with the goal of proving or disproving everything used in Odell’s conviction: the time of death of his then-girlfriend, Anna; the existence of a motive; Anna’s diary entries that showed she was afraid of someone, presumed to be Odell; eyewitness testimony; and Odell’s lack of alibi. Though he’s been up for parole already, he refuses to go in front of the parole board, saying he can’t admit regret for a crime he didn’t commit.
At first, Hayes is reluctant to lead the CIU, preferring to assume the role of figurehead and coast while the others do the real work. She even pushes Conner to fire her by snorting what looks like cocaine in front of him, right off the D.A.’s desk. In a scene rife with tension, Conner licks the substance off her finger and says it isn’t coke, calling her bluff. I definitely expected them to kiss right then, but alas, we’ll have to wait and see if these adversarial colleagues resume what was once clearly a relationship, at least a sexual one.
Eventually, though, Hayes comes around and seems eager to prove her abilities — to Conner, to her team, to her Senate-candidate mother who pushes her to do more with her life. She visits Odell in prison and becomes convinced of his innocence, and that’s when the CIU’s investigation takes a turn. The team quickly identifies another potential suspect — whom Anna was really writing about in her diary — and thanks in part to Hayes’ recognizable celebrity, they find the gun used in the crime and succeed in getting Odell’s conviction overturned. Conner gets his happy ending, to be sure, but Hayes is also pleased with her team’s success, and it gives her a taste of the kind of real change she could affect with her new job.
After another confrontation between Conner and Hayes — in which Hayes says she’s going to do the job her way, Conner’s blackmailing be damned — we close on a conference table at the CIU office, covered with case files for the team to examine. Hayes surveys the work in front of her, smiles slightly, and says “Who’s next?”
I won’t lie… Conviction seems a little formulaic at times, no doubt because of ABC’s desire to replicate the success of Shondaland without, well, Shonda Rhimes at the helm. But Atwell turns in a captivating performance as Hayes, and I’m actually looking forward to seeing the other characters’ backstories. Plus, who doesn’t love the idea of setting innocent people free? Pilots are notorious for trying to cram too much story into too little airtime, so I’m hoping next week’s episode dives a little more into the existing characters before introducing any new faces — besides, of course, the case/defendant of the week.
What’s your verdict on Conviction? Will you be tuning in next week?