Adding a new legal drama to broadcast television isn't easy since it seems like every possible idea for the genre has already been taken. There are lawyers lawyering with their dads, lawyers pretending to be lawyers, prosecutors who hook up with defense attorneys, lawyers who confuse brain aneurysms with callings from a higher power, lawyers who dream of dancing babies, and many more. But ABC's new 50 Cent-produced legal drama For Life, created by Hank Steinberg (The Last Ship), has a wrinkle that not only separates it from the others out there, it might just make you believe that there is hope for a system that seems irrevocably broken.
That broken system is at the heart of For Life, which is inspired by the true story of Isaac Wright Jr., a black man who was wrongly convicted of selling drugs and sentenced to life in prison, where he studied law and overturned his own conviction as his own lawyer. His incredible story is one of racial injustice and relentless determination. If that doesn't inspire you, nothing will.
In For Life, Aaron Wallace (force of nature Nicholas Pinnock, a British actor who starred in Counterpart and Top Boy) is thrown down Wright's path. He's wrongfully arrested for dealing drugs, becomes a paralegal inside the joint, and begins representing other inmates as a bona fide lawyer after getting his license and passing the bar. The only differences between the lawyers his clients are used to having is that Wallace rides back with them to prison and he actually cares. Along the way, Wallace hopes to defend himself in court to overturn his conviction and shove the full extent of the law in the faces of the lawmen who conspired to dump him in prison for reasons we're not aware of... yet.
When the series starts, Wallace is already nine years into his sentence and just about to take his first case — one that sits close to his heart — an attempt to overturn a conviction of another inmate on bogus drug charges. It's Wallace's handling of the case that shows For Life's unique approach to its already unique premise. A normal, run-of-the-mill legal drama would make Wallace work by the book, spouting legal terms and fighting the system by using the system, outsmarting the Harvard-trained suits on the other side of the aisle. Or he'd be a caricature of a convict, a fish-out-of-water hurling anecdotes about living on the street and enlightening the judge about how things really work where he grew up, counting on charisma to win over the court.
But this con-turned-lawyer does something unexpected when he bends the law to fight the law; it's illegal, but it's effective. It also nails down the heart of For Life. The broken system that put him behind bars can't be fought without breaking it more, and when the cause is fighting corruption, nothing is off limits. It's a bold stance to take, especially one for broadcast television, and it works to find that sweet spot between right and wrong. (To be fair, Wallace spends much of the time following the law to a T, and is excellent at it.)
In taking cases, Wallace is also walking a tightrope between those he defends and those who help him, like the prison's warden (Game of Thrones' Indira Varma), who fully supports Wallace but whose own aspirations to do good can come into conflict with Wallace's actions. He's also delicately handling his fellow inmates — remember, he's a prisoner! — and must address cases, like the white supremacist gang member he defends in Episode 2, in ways that don't get him left full of holes in a prison shower. On top of all that, he's chock full of family drama leftover from his life as a free man.
Of course, it all works because we're rooting like hell for Wallace, a man who's worked so hard to fix what's wronged him, and Pinnock is rock solid in the role, combining ferociousness with compassion. But knowing how far he's willing to go to get the justice he deserves is surprising when it's injected into the bones of what otherwise might be a standard drama.
TV Guide Rating: 3.5/5
For Life premieres Tuesday, Feb. 11 at 10/9c on ABC