ABC’s new legal procedural, based on a true story and executive produced by 50 Cent, proves an intriguing real-life story of failed justice and more than one kind of self-defense.
This recap of For Life Season 1, Episode 1 contains spoilers.
With the recent success of Just Mercy and Clemency, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to see a network procedural focusing on wrongful convictions and the failures of the American justice system. But the specific version of that story presented in For Life, a new prison and courtroom drama on ABC executive produced by 50 Cent and based on the real-life story of Isaac Wright Jr., a man who was wrongfully convicted and later oversaw his own appeal from prison, might not be exactly what you were expecting.
This is, for the most part, to the show’s credit. Despite inelegant voiceover narration and reams of exposition being deployed to familiarise us with the predicament of Aaron Wallace (Nicholas Pinnock), both in terms of how he ended up inside and also how he’s able to practice law and defend himself and other inmates while incarcerated, what the story’s eagerness allows for is the immediate immersion of an audience in a slightly unusual blend of prison drama and courtroom procedural. Some teething troubles in For Life Episode 1 notwithstanding, the overall effect occupies a space halfway between grounded and fanciful that mostly worked well for me, and I suspect might work equally well for many others.
Those teething troubles include a simplistic moral undercurrent that positions Aaron on the side of justice and fairness and his legal adversaries in the same realm as mustache-twirling evildoers who make little effort to disguise their tampering with witnesses and evidence and Aaron’s ability to attend court on-time. This feels too easy and an unhelpful distilling of systematic injustice which in actuality is much more insidious; hopefully subsequent episodes realize this and complicate the courtroom battles in other ways than having the prosecution simply rig the case in their favor.
I’m willing to give For Life the benefit of the doubt here since there is welcome complexity in other areas of the story. In particular, Indira Varma makes an impact as progressive prison warden Safiya, whose positive policies have a self-serving component, and whose relationship with Aaron as her eyes and ears among both the prisoners and a contingent of old-fashioned, change-resistant guards threatens to endanger him on the inside. Political jockeying seems a persistent threat to Aaron’s ability not just to win cases but to practice law at all, and Aaron’s ex-wife Marie (Joy Bryant) and daughter Jasmine (Tyla Harris) provide personal complications and a motivation to win his own case and return home, given that the former is now shacked up with Aaron’s friend Darius (Brandon J. Dirden) and the latter is pregnant with a baby boy.
With all of these ideas continuing to bubble beneath the surface, including what seems to be a pending case defending an Aryan at the behest of a charming individual known as Wild Bill, For Life Season 1, Episode 1 has a clear direction going forward. The question, I think, is whether it’ll get there by using its true-to-life righteousness as a crutch, allowing its cases to burn their implicit injustice for fuel, or whether it’ll introduce more welcome complications and still trust its audience to see right from wrong. Early signs, though, are certainly positive, and For Life stands out as one of the more immediately intriguing network shows this season.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.