'Proven Innocent': TV Review

Proven uninspired.
2/15/2019

Fox's attempt to do an Innocence Project-style legal drama suffers from one-dimensional villains, a confused approach to its heroine and trying to be too many different shows at once.

If the stakes and personalities in Fox's new legal drama Proven Innocent could live up to the character names, it would be an all-time great show.

This is a series with a slick, ultra-religious crusading lawyer named Easy Boudreau, a quirky investigator named Bodie Quick, an earnest podcaster named Violet Price and a menacing adversarial prosecutor named Gore Bellows. Proven Innocent creator David Elliot has assigned appellations to his creations with an aplomb and flair far above the pedestrian paces his narrative puts them through. These are names for characters who deserve to be in something lurid and pulpy and fun, not something as staid and generic as Proven Innocent mostly is, through the two episodes made available to critics.

Proven Innocent, boasting Empire co-creator Danny Strong among its executive producers, is TV's latest attempt to build a legal procedural around the Innocence Project or an organization that's basically the Innocence Project. In this case, it's the Injustice Defense Group, a firm fronted by the aforementioned Ezekiel "Easy" Boudreau (Russell Hornsby) and Madeline Scott (Rachelle Lefevre), a crusader notorious for having served time and then been exonerated for, along with her brother Levi (Riley Smith), allegedly murdering her high school best friend. The firm also includes Violet Price (underutilized Tony winner Nikki M. James), whose comically half-baked Until Proven Innocent podcast serves the same expositional purposes as one of those radio show/announcement teams that high school shows often have and real high schools rarely do. And then there's Bodie Quick (Vincent Kartheiser), a katana-wielding investigator whose methodology requires him to overcommit to each task.

The firm technically exists to get wrongfully convicted prisoners freed, but really exists to serve as an irritant to Gore Bellows (Kelsey Grammer), the state's attorney who once put Madeline away and still believes that she and her brother are guilty. Bellows is running for Illinois attorney general and Madeline is determined to stop him, which seems fair because Bellows is E-V-I-L evil, even if somebody somehow convinced Grammer that by adding one 10-second introspective scene per week Bellows was anything other than the most wicked and bloviating of villains. Grammer isn't phoning in his performance and for that I give him credit, but to what end?

That Grammer expertly and operatically played a morally compromised Chicago politician to Golden Globe-winning effect in Starz's Boss only exposes and underlines what a weakly conceived role this is, but he's far from alone. Proven Innocent is a playground for badly developed villains, and it's almost remarkable that those 20 weekly seconds of introspection make Gore Bellows better than the ludicrous Nancy Grace stand-in (Elaine Hendrix, avoiding subtlety like the plague, as is probably appropriate), Madeline's ice-queen high school acquaintance (Caitlin Mehner, less appropriately on-the-nose) and a string of partisan judges who render every aspect of the show's legal depictions laughable. The only thing worse than the flimsy way Proven Innocent treats the law is how it treats journalism, insofar as I don't think the show has introduced a single "reporter" character whose key plotline didn't involve them sleeping with a subject.

Nothing is helped by a main character who the show wants to treat as wildly empathetic, when the way she comes across is as so wildly empathetic that she has the ability to understand the plight of the unjustly accused and make everything about herself. She references her case with very little prompting, she irrationally makes decisions about clients based on her own case and any time she visits a prison or a courtroom, it triggers a flashback (that Lefevre's high school equivalent looks older than Lefevre is just an odd distraction). It's not in any way the actress' fault that Madeline is an egomaniacal sociopath whom the show views as a crusading hero. When Madeline says, "I don't want to make this story about me," the show seems to believe her. I do not.

There's a comparable disconnect between Proven Innocent and the multiple different shows our other heroes feel lifted from. Riley Smith is going twitchy and Method as Madeline's drug-abusing brother who spends most of the first episode coaching a youth soccer team, which the show treats as a job, and vanishes entirely in the second episode sent to critics (the fourth overall). Hornsby, always great, gives Easy some righteous zeal, making it even more uncomfortable when that fourth episode sells the character out entirely for daring to have personal, moral convictions. And Kartheiser loads Bodie so completely with tics and quirkiness that I've already become fully annoyed every time he appears, and yet I'm entirely prepared to watch the actor and character in a Fletch-esque PI comedy of his own. I think Bodie Quick is an amusing character, just not in this show.

Each Proven Innocent episode has a one-off case of injustice to handle and in the two episodes I've watched, both procedural cases are handled without any notable ingenuity. That's paired with the incrementally inching case of who actually killed Madeline and Levi's friend, a mystery that is interjected with some style by pilot director Patricia Riggen, though it lacks for sufficient intrigue to be parsed out in this way. The balance of procedural and serialized elements is always hard for broadcast shows and this is a version in which both sides are left malnourished. Every weekly case brings us up against the same thinly crafted prosecutorial villains, and if the show thinks it has given me a reason to care about the case from Madeline's past, it is incorrect.

Proven Innocent reminds me of The Resident, which began its life trying to do a few audacious and confrontational things — albeit unsuccessfully — adjacent to a more conventional case-of-the-week procedural and has, at least when I check in, settled for being a formulaic and flat medical drama that does decently for Fox. There's probably an audience for that kind of legal show as well and I don't think Proven Innocent has a greater upside than that, once that's the direction it inevitably goes.

Cast: Rachelle Lefevre, Russell Hornsby, Nikki M. James, Vincent Kartheiser, Riley Smith, Kelsey Grammer
Creator: David Elliot
Premieres: Friday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Fox)