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'The Divide': TV Review

WEtv The Divide - H 2014
WEtv

The Bottom Line

Absorbing, ambitious and boasting a great cast, the drama takes its time exploring the nuances and fallout from a single brutal crime, instead of falling into a procedural pattern.

Airtime

Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on WE tv, beginning July 16

Cast

Marin Ireland, Damon Gupton, Nia Long, Paul Schneider, Chris Bauer, Joe Anderson, Clarke Peters

Creators

Richard LaGravenese and Tony Goldwyn

WE tv's first scripted series is an engrossing eight-episode legal drama that explores issues of race, politics, greed and justice.

The Divide, a legal drama created by Richard LaGravenese (Behind the Candelabra) and Tony Goldwyn (Scandal), was originally developed by AMC in 2012. But when AMC held off on giving the green light to the series, it seemed like the perfect vehicle for sister network WE tv to get into the scripted arena. It was the right choice. In the wake of marquee series like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, the nuanced legal drama The Divide might have not have gotten a chance to prove itself. On WE tv, it has the opportunity to develop as that network's own marquee series, as WE tv re-brands from just offering content geared toward women.

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Having said that, one of The Divide's greatest strengths is its tough female lead, Christine Rosa (Marin Ireland), and it's also worth noting that the series' first scene already passes the Bechdel test. Christine is a latecomer to the practice of law, but while studying to take her bar exam, she works for The Innocence Initiative, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that seeks to overturn death row cases and other wrongful imprisonment cases. The Initiative is run by the driven and dedicated Clark Rylance (Paul Schneider), who is both irritated by and encouraging of Christine's dogged pursuit of justice at any cost.

Despite the legal setup, The Divide has no interest in being a procedural series. Instead, it chooses to focus on one investigation — known as the Butler Case — throughout its inaugural eight-episode run. The Butlers, a wealthy African-American family living in a predominantly white Philadelphia neighborhood, were brutally murdered by two white men 12 years ago. One of them, Jared Bankowski (Chris Bauer), whose DNA was found under the fingernails of one of the deceased, was given the death penalty and is awaiting his execution. The other, Terry Kucik (Joe Anderson), was given life in prison after his DNA was also found, although he claimed then, and since then, that he was actually in a relationship with the Butlers' older daughter at the time. 

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The lone survivor was younger daughter Jenny (Britne Oldford), who served as an eyewitness at the trials of both men. Jenny has remained close with the family of the prosecutor at the time, Adam Page (Damon Gupton), who is now the district attorney, and who by no means wants the case that made his career questioned and reopened. He and his wife, Billie (Nia Long), are a Philly power couple whose personal story The Divide also follows as its story opens up in the wake of Christine's public attention toward whether or not the Butler Case is as cut-and-dried as it seems.

From the start, The Divide sets up a complicated world that looks to explore the nuances of race, politics, truth and justice around the Butler Case, through Christine's belief that at least Bankowski, if not both men, are actually innocent. She's motivated by her own life, where her father was wrongly imprisoned and sentenced to death for a crime she claims he didn't commit. That's an old setup, sure, but The Divide plays with these facts through natural exposition over the course of its first two episodes, punctuated by believable twists, that makes it almost feel like a new conceit. 

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Under Goldwyn's direction, the series has a cold, wintry palette, and a darkness to it that is atmospheric without being overwhelming, and serves to reflect the show's illustration of moral grayness. The Butler Case is not a one-episode whodunit, but a vehicle through which The Divide is allowed to attempt a weighty portrait of violence, greed, family and corruption. The series, which moves along at an engrossing clip and never allows its characters easy outs, clearly has aspirations to break out of legal-thriller and activist-centric conventions, and should appeal to crime fans as well as those who enjoy a novelistic approach to television. There are many false starts and complicated turns on The Divide, but one thing is clear: WE tv did a good job for itself by grabbing it.