According to ABC, tonight is the "fall finale" of the drama "Conviction." Which is pretty ironic given that the show seems likely to return in January just long enough to burn off the last four episodes of its initial 13-episode order. In a year when very few shows are officially canceled by the broadcast networks, "Conviction" falls in the newer "Dead Man Walking" category. Which is too bad, because the show is a solid example of how one or two early creative decisions can doom a series before the first episode even airs.
Procedural shows are difficult - even in the best case scenario. Networks prefer a series with stand-alone episodes, but ideally also with a backstory that is just complex enough to keep loyal viewers engaged. "NCIS" has been a master of this balancing act (at least until this season). You can watch any episode of "NCIS" out of order and grasp 90% of what's going on. But there is also that 10% series mythology that makes the show easy to watch multiple times.
Writers like complexity. They prefer to create characters with moral ambiguity, with an inability to be self-aware. Like twentysomething bachelors, TV writers love a bad girl, and it's helpful if she's also sexy and smart. Forget a hooker with a heart of gold. An ethically-challenged female lawyer is a lot more fun to write and the biggest challenge is deciding when she'll find redemption. But sometimes, the search for that complex character can lead even the best show creatively astray.
"Conviction" is really two different television shows and one reason it's struggled to find an audience is that the half that is most of interest to viewers is not the half that seems to be valued most by show creators Liz Friedman, Liz Friedlander and ABC. And that's a problem, because the result is a show that is often jarring to watch. It's like paying good money to see Coldplay and then once you're there you discover that while the band will sing, they're more interested in interpretive dance. Which is also a valid creative choice, but not the one most fans came to see.
Hayley Atwell plays Hayes Morrison, a lawyer and former first daughter who is arrested for cocaine possession. She's helped out by a family friend/former lover/nemesis New York District Attorney Conner Wallace (Eddie Cahill). He offers her a deal: if she'll agree to head up the new Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), he'll make the charges go away. Why would he make this offer? He wants to help out Hayes' mother, who is in the midst of a Senate campaign.
So, of course, Hayes reluctantly agrees to take the job and each week, her team takes a look at another case to determine if the person who was convicted is actually guilty. A fair amount of each episode is spent not on the case or the investigation, but on Hayes, her on-again/off-again relationship with D.A. Wallace, her brother, her mother, etc., etc. Based on the first eight episodes, creators Friedman and Friedlander seem to see "Conviction" more a show about Hayes Morrison's struggles to find her purpose in life and less about the cases that get examined each week.
Which is a shame, because the investigation part of the show is easily the most compelling reason to watch. Strip away all the Hayes Morrison angst and the episodes have presented some morally complex and factually complicated cases. There's a lot of meat on those bones and I often find myself groaning every time the episode shifts back to Hayes and her ethical challenge de jour. Not every case has ended with a reversal and over the course of the season, each case truly has been individual and surprising. But even as the investigation is resolved, the show turns back into the Hayes Morrison Hour.
This isn't a knock on the abilities of Atwell, who does a good job with the role she's been given. But I would have much preferred to see a show that spent the pilot setting up the premise, then just focused on the CIU and their cases. That still leaves room for Haley's moral dilemmas, but stripping out some of the sidebars and distractions would have made for a much more consistent show. And maybe one that viewers would have found easier to watch.
Overall, the acting on "Conviction" is very good, but as the season has progressed, several ensemble actors have stood out. Manny Montana has been spectacular as "Frankie" Cruz, an ex-con who sees the CIU as his chance to create a new life for himself. In the first couple of episodes, he didn't have much to do, but it's been great to see his backstory slowly unfold as he's also given more changes to show his investigative skills. If I have one quibble, it's that I would have preferred to see Montana cast in a less-predictable role in the show. Flipping his role with Shawn Ashmore's ADA Sam Spencer would have given both actors a chance to tackle nontraditional roles and it's a challenge I suspect both actors would have relished.
Similar praise has to go to Emily Kinney, who plays the soft-spoken Tess Larson. Her character was also one that initially got lost in the Hayes Morrison storyline hurricane. But in the past couple of episodes, she's become a much more nuanced and fascinating character. It takes a subtle performer to pull off that balancing act and she does it absolutely perfectly.
"Conviction" seems likely to wrap up its run after 13 episodes and while I'm not surprised, I am a bit disappointed. There was a core show here that could have thrived. But I suppose at the end of the day, a procedural that focused on just people who might have been wrongly convicted just wasn't complex enough for the network. Which is too bad, since that's exactly the show I wanted "Conviction" to be before I even watched the pilot over the summer.