NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, February 28th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: ABC’s newest primetime show.
On its surface, it’s hard to imagine a timelier TV series than, For Life. Law and Order may boast that it’s ripped from the headlines, but this inspired-by-a-true-story legal drama feels as is if it owes its existence to the campaign trail.
CLIP: Are you saying the district attorney’s office is racist? I’ll leave that for other people to decide. But there’s no question the system’s broke for anybody that doesn’t have power or money. Overcharging people who can’t afford a lawyer then forcing them into a plea is an epidemic in this country
Part of the pitch President Trump made to black voters during this year’s State of the Union address included his administration’s support for criminal justice reform. He especially highlighted the problem of mandatory sentencing for non-violent drug offenders.
Isaac Wright Jr. was once caught in the net of such a law. He was sentenced to life under New Jersey’s “drug kingpin” statute in 1991. He then spent his time in a maximum-security prison becoming, first, a paralegal and, later, a lawyer. Eventually, Wright used his newfound expertise to overturn his own conviction. But in the meantime, he represented his fellow inmates, winning freedom for some and reduced sentences for others.
CLIP: I don’t know if I want to get involved in all this. What did they promise you? I hope it’s protection because you’re gonna need it when people find out you rolled on him again. Are you threatening me? It’s not a threat, it’s a fact. And I won’t be able to stop it. That’s messed up. No, what’s messed up is this kid’s been rotting in here for six years and he’s gonna do 14 more because you lied. Freddie this is your chance to make things right.
ABC executives had to be blessing the day they got to Wright’s life story before John Grisham did.
But that’s all exterior. Pop the hood and you find overly oiled machinery that differs little from a dozen other courtroom dramas that have rolled off the broadcast assembly line in the last few years.
Perhaps it’s because Wright himself is an executive producer on the series. But he and co-producer Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson seem intent on making Wright—here named Aaron Wallace—an overly noble figure. Perhaps he is, but they’ve forgotten that Aaron also needs to be flawed to be interesting. The Bible lives so large in the imaginations of even unbelievers in part because it only portrays one figure who’s without sin. Everybody else is left to flounder in their realistic humanity.
Aaron’s conviction stems from the fact he ran a nightclub through which massive amounts of cocaine were being trafficked. This suggests he might at least have been a guy who cut a few ethical, if not legal, corners. Or maybe he was especially unobservant. Or maybe his business partner took exceptionally effective pains to hide his tracks.
But at least in the first few episodes, For Life doesn’t treat this as a question worth exploring. A few flashback scenes of Aaron as a great dad and husband are all we get of this backstory. We’re to take it on faith that the prosecution had no basis of any sort to start investigating him.
CLIP: I used to be just like you. I had a wife I loved. I had a family and a home. I owned a business. I paid my taxes. I had my friends. Some of them were the kind of friends you’d be better off without. Maybe I should have known. The powers that be came down on me. So here I am now, nine years later. For the first time back in the same courthouse where they came to take my life away.
The case of real life, first-time offender Alice Johnson, who received the same penalty for a similar conviction until President Trump commuted her sentence, offers a lesson. One need not be innocent in every respect to have been punished unreasonably.
The district attorneys, too, are a little one-note. There’s no doubt from a little internet research into the case that they acted more criminally than many of the felons they put behind bars. But again, in a realistic drama like this, characters who offer only villainy quickly feel cliched.
CLIP: I’ve seen the court records. Smells like you were playing footloose and fancy free with witnesses, discovery, snitches. Then let him prove that. Hard to without seeing what you and the cops are withholding. Of course that’s what you count on. Dragging your feet with your limitless resources, grinding people down. Holy smokes, what happened to you? Moral clarity. You ought to try it some time.
The legislation we passed protecting police misconduct. We ruined people’s lives. How many lives, Glen, while we were doing our jobs?
That said, there are a few signs of life. Like when Aaron makes the utilitarian choice to join forces with a White Supremacist gang leader. Less promising are several ill-fitting LGBT side plots. The stories of those like Isaac Wright, aggressively pursued by corrupt government agents, shouldn’t have to share the spotlight with an irrelevant agenda.
For Life, which airs on Tuesdays at 10 pm, is a good idea. We can only hope ABC’s execution gets better.