This needs to be said at the beginning: For Life is one of those shows you need to watch past the pilot episode before deciding whether it's for you. And it’s not just that you’ll need time to find your equilibrium. For Life is not the first courtroom drama to present criminal justice through the eyes of the defense. It is, however, the first one in which the defense consists of a convict currently serving time.
That man is Aaron Wallace, and his character is loosely based on the real life of Isaac Wright Jr., whose incredible story (which I wrote about earlier) reads like a Shonda Rhimes rewrite of Find Me Guilty and The Shawshank Redemption. Convicted as a drug kingpin when a load of coke is planted at his nightclub, Aaron — a law-abiding family man who happens to be black — receives a life sentence and is sent off to a tough New York state prison.
Obviously, his old way of life is destroyed. His wife and daughter will have to find their way in the world without him. But Aaron must focus, for his own survival, on navigating the tricky terrain of what he calls “prison politics,” the clusters of violent white supremacists and black nationalists who have divided up the joint. Once Aaron acclimates to the world of the condemned, though, he's determined to learn the law and litigate his way out. It’s a daunting challenge, but Aaron, like other wrongfully-convicted men, has got nothing but time.
For viewers who aren’t working off a recap like mine, watching For Life will be a bumpy ride for a while. That’s because the show opens nine years into Aaron’s sentence, and much has happened in the past that requires exposition, including a few mind-bending details. Like … how exactly did Aaron get admitted to the bar? When Maskins (Boris McGiver), the D.A. who sent him away, hears the explanation, he can’t believe it. When I heard it I couldn’t believe it, either. (In real life, Isaac Wright never tried cases until long after his release from prison.)
More plausible is Aaron’s relationship to the prison’s warden, the reform-minded Masry (Indira Varma), who gives him a fair hearing and quietly helps him with his appeal. Less plausible is that her wife (played by Mary Stuart Masterson) is challenging Maskins’ bid for re-election. More plausible: Aaron’s first case involves a fellow prisoner who was himself falsely accused. Less plausible: He tries getting the defendant freed by fabricating evidence, with help from the white supremacy gang.
As if that weren’t enough in a 42-minute pilot, this is an ABC show, so of course we also have to shoehorn in a few dramatic family scenes involving Aaron, his estranged wife Marie (Joy Bryant), and their now-teenage daughter Jasmine (Tyla Harris). It’s a lot — too much, really — and the neat and tidy way the hour is tied up with a shiny bow doesn’t help. Viewers may well think that they’ve seen pretty much all they need to see.
But they haven’t. Not until the second hour of For Life do we meet the character who proves to be Aaron’s true bridge to the outside world. He’s Henry Roswell, played by the wonderful Timothy Busfield. A disgraced former state senator who’s newly sober, Roswell becomes convinced of Aaron’s innocence and is willing to work the angles to help move his case forward.
Roswell’s motives are not entirely clear, and probably not entirely pure, but he’s clearly sorry about what he’s done. And getting disbarred and tossed on his ear seems to have lightened him up. Busfield has a great time throwing his white privilege around, telling off the prison guards, D.A. Maskins, and anybody else who tries to play the authority game with him.
In an exchange with Maskins, Roswell invokes the name of a certain NBC legal heavyweight that For Life clearly has in its crosshairs. “The water I carried for you and the other law and order bastards while I was in the senate, passing legislation protecting law enforcement,” Roswell says. “We ruined people’s lives! How many lives, Glen, while we were doing our jobs?”
Busfield also pairs up well with Pinnock, a classically trained British actor who thinks impersonating Americans is easy. As a Midwesterner, I beg to differ, and Aaron’s prison patois, and some of his whisperings in the courtroom, were cryptic enough that I wished my screener had come with captions. (For Life will be captioned but sadly, it won’t be described for the visually impaired. Did you know Netflix went to the trouble of describing hundreds of old movies like The Ring and Naked Gun 2-1/2? It’s a shame ABC isn’t more profitable.)
For Life is from Hank Steinberg, who also created Without a Trace for CBS and a criminally neglected drama called The Nine that ABC killed after just seven episodes. With black-ish as its lead-in, a decent place on the schedule, a high-profile backer in Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, and heavy promotion, ABC seems to be giving For Life every chance to succeed. I hope you will too, and hold your judgment until after next week’s episode.
For Life premieres on ABC Tuesday February 11th at 10:00 PM ET.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.