Hayley Atwell made history in 2015 when she became the first woman to headline a Marvel project, with Agent Carter. Sadly, the drama's sharp writing, enviable fashion and playful attitude failed to result in stellar ratings and ABC canceled it after only two seasons. But the network had no plan on letting the rising star go, signing Atwell on to front a new drama, Conviction, before Agent Carter's fate was even officially sealed.
This unfortunate turn of events is what makes Conviction so bittersweet for those still mourning the loss of Carter. But fans of Atwell's shouldn't let that stop them from checking out her new series, in which Atwell is clearly having a blast playing the lead, Hayes Morrison.
A former defense attorney and first daughter, Hayes is blackmailed into running an investigative unit dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions. And though seeing Atwell work from within a corrupt system to fight "the Man" and help the disenfranchised is comfortingly similar to what fans saw her do on Agent Carter, the similarities stop there. Full of inappropriate quips that range from clever to genuinely offensive, Hayes is the anti-Peggy Carter — a woman who runs from the smallest hint of sincerity and who has little empathy for the innocent people she's charged with getting released.
Forced by her longtime frenemy D.A. Wallace (Eddie Cahill) and her mother (Bess Armstrong) into taking the job, Hayes initially wants to do the bare minimum until she finds a means to escape the Conviction Integrity Unit. But soon, Hayes' love of intellectual sport kicks in and she manages to find her own perverse enjoyment in this less-than-ideal situation — a move which threatens Wallace's original (self-serving) intentions in hiring her. Not that Hayes gives a damn what Wallace wants.
Given her messy history (the premiere includes a cocaine arrest and mentions some nude paparazzi photos that made the rounds), Hayes has a well-earned reputation for being brash and transgressive. And while Hayes is genuinely unconcerned with how her actions are perceived by others, she's also acutely aware of how easily a "fun, wild" girl can become a cautionary tale. But with nothing left to lose, Hayes seems determined to weaponize her fearlessness into doing some good before her past mistakes catch up to her.
This outlook gives Hayes a confidence that she wears as armor. Well aware of humanity's worst vices — manipulation, being chief among them — Hayes enters every situation expecting the worst in people. But rather than be disappointed when her predictions are proven correct, Hayes remains coldly detached, even giving one employee advice on how best to backstab her.
Her carefully constructed aloofness allows Hayes to maintain a feeling of control over her tumultuous life, but her walls begin to crumble the more involved she becomes with the CIU, as she discovers a sense of self-fulfillment that had previously eluded her. And the fact that Hayes can wreak a little havoc on the world (and the social-climbing politicians who surround her) at the same time is just a serendipitous bonus.
Watching Atwell engage in this psychological warfare, chewing the scenery as she goes, is a bright spot in an otherwise rote pilot. But thanks in large part to Atwell's natural charisma, Conviction is filled with potential, particularly if the show starts to allow Hayes to work with — not against — her team of CIU employees (which includes Alias' Merrin Dungey, Animorphs' Shawn Ashmore, The Walking Dead's Emily Kinney and Graceland's Manny Montana).
At the end of the day, is Conviction as charming and unique as Agent Carter? No. Is it a clear Scandal knock-off? Of course. But is it worth checking out? Definitely. Atwell's joy in playing the ne'er-do-well Hayes is infectious, and her performance alone is worth tuning in for.
Conviction premieres Monday at 10/9c on ABC.