'For Life': TV Review

The evidence is all over the place, but there's a case for an OK drama here.
2/11/2020

ABC's new legal drama is loosely inspired by the story of Isaac Wright Jr., focusing on a prisoner who uses the system that framed him to fight injustice.

Throughout ABC's new legal drama For Life, people are constantly telling Aaron Wallace (Nicholas Pinnock) to slow down, not to take such big risks or go to such extremes.

It's a warning one might direct at For Life as well, as it layers one seemingly superfluous wrinkle or complication after another on top of what is already a very busy, twisty series. The challenge for creator Hank Steinberg: The series is inspired by the life of Isaac Wright Jr. and when you read the details of Wright's unjust incarceration and subsequent exoneration, the reality also went several twists beyond what anybody would find plausible — so it's a tough standard. That, of course, doesn't mean that For Life — which carefully emphasizes that even if Wright is its inspiration, "the story, including all characters, events, incidents portrayed, scenes, and dialogue, is fictitious" — couldn't handle certain of its dramatically outsized elements with more fluidity to match other more successful parts of the story.

With the help of huge swathes of exposition, For Life rushes through its premise. Aaron was a nightclub owner. He was arrested on trumped-up drug charges and has been incarcerated for nine years, during which time he found various loopholes in the system and got a law degree, passed the bar in a different state, transferred his bar admission and is now able to appear in New York courtrooms as a bona fide lawyer. In addition to serving as prison rep and assisting other inmates, he's determined to clear his own name, which doesn't play well with the vast conspiratorial cabal that brought him down, led by Boris McGiver's aspiring New York attorney general. Why did the vast cabal choose to frame Aaron? It's entirely unclear through the two episodes sent to critics, though everywhere Aaron goes, there are five or six evil white people sneering in the background. And the amazing thing is that Wright was indeed the victim of a fairly vast conspiracy that unraveled with tragic consequences, making it one of the primary places For Life makes you go "Really?" and the answer is, "Yes, really."

Could the show have gotten away without the convolutions required to make Aaron an actual jailhouse lawyer, when Wright only got his degree and passed the bar after ending his incarceration? Sure. Was it necessary to have the prison warden (Indira Varma) be married to Aaron's nemesis' key political rival? Probably not. Would audiences have believed that Aaron wanted to get back home with maybe 50 percent less emotional manipulation related to his ex (Joy Bryant's Marie) and teenage daughter (Tyla Harris' Jasmine)? Absolutely. Steinberg and pilot director George Tillman, Jr. layer in so much extra that it's no wonder that Aaron is, as a character, heightened to a level of perpetual one-note intensity and leads Pinnock to a performance that is comparably one-note.

And as is so frequently the case with British thespians, that righteous forcefulness is where Pinnock's American accent goes to die. As Counterpart showed, Pinnock is a reasonably commanding actor when used properly and I think there's some of that here, but the entire performance and the believability of the character would be enhanced with any sort of variety or volume control.

You need to root for Aaron to get free, because like Wright before him, that's what justice would look like. The conflict, though, is that as a lawyer in the outside world, Aaron just isn't interesting. He's righteous (though not always in purely righteous ways, which I appreciated). His adversaries are comically nefarious, so it's just about the least complex depiction of a rigged system. Aaron's path to the bar is far more perplexing and requires far more explanation and justification than anything tied to "the legal system" and its failings.

Maybe that's why Aaron is way more compelling in his gig as prison rep, serving as an intermediary between fellow inmates, guards and administrators. He's still dealing with injustice, but it's injustice of a more labyrinthine variety that's been less frequently depicted. That isn't to say that the prison world of racially divided gangs and violently defended loyalties is all that fresh, either, but it happens that the casting in the prison world is full of interesting character actors like Dorian Missick as one of Aaron's closest allies, Glenn Fleshler as a predictably wicked guard and Hassan Johnson as an inmate who cautions Aaron about the connections he's making.

Best of all, For Life features a guest-starring turn from Peter Greene as a prison Nazi named Wild Bill. A ubiquitous indie-film figure in the mid-1990s — if you didn't see Clean Shaven, you know him as Zed from Pulp Fiction or Redfoot from The Usual Suspects — Greene doesn't get much mainstream work these days, but he infuses the screen with such instant menace and charismatic ooze that the show instantly perks up in his presence.

Broadcast TV is not overpopulated by dramas that develop into the best versions of themselves — points to Evil and, to a lesser degree, Stumptown and Emergence for doing that this season — but it's enough to tentatively say that there actually is a version of For Life that could be quite solid. After two episodes, it's mostly there in hints and subplots.

Cast: Nicholas Pinnock, Indira Varma, Joy Bryant, Dorian Missick, Tyla Harris, Mary Stuart Masterson, Glenn Fleshler, Timothy Busfield, Peter Greene
Creator: Hank Steinberg
Premieres: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)