Conviction Makes the Case

It’s all going to end in tears.

I caught the first few minutes of the new NBC show Conviction, and liked what I saw. So I checked out the whole hour, and I was pleasantly surprised.

The show is set in the same fictional universe as all of Dick Wolf’s Law & Order shows, featuring a cameo by DA Arthur Branch and heavily leaning on the dramatic presence of Stephanie March as the returned bureau chief Alexandra Cabot. This sounds familiar for a reason – the failed Law & Order: Trial By Jury took a somewhat similar slant, focusing on the “law” side of the equation. The difference was that Trial By Jury slanted in a CBS direction – veteran actors, older energy, keeping it impersonal and at the workplace. This show takes a much smarter, more Grey’s Anatomy tactic.

First of all, the cast skews younger, focused through the perspective of rookie ADA Nick Potter, played by the largely forgettable Jordan Bridges (who looks like Fred Savage’s cousin, with the perpetually alarmed expression of Star Trek: Voyager’s Garrett Wang). However, the rest of the cast has compelling elements.

First there are three recognizeable faces that help immediately. Julianne Nicholson reprises the “nervous young lawyer” shtick she brought to the tail end of Ally McBeal to her role as Christina Finn. Then you’ve got my USC alumni J. August Richards as ADA Billy Desmond, a hotshot who’s never been beaten (and some say it’s because he pleads out tough cases), bringing some of the “Smart Lawyer Gunn” shtick from the last seasons of Angel. Finally, Eric Balfour goes against his previous roles (the computer nerd Milo on 24 for example) as Brian Peluso, a hard partying womanizer haunted by a past relationship. Seeing familiar faces gives this series an instant comfort factor that can’t be beaten.

Then there’s the less familiar faces, such as Anson Mount as the two-fisted ADA James (“Call him Jim”) Steele. Losing his good friend to a trial-related murder in the first episode, he takes on a grimly determined demeanor of a relentless crusader for justice. He kind of storms through the office and other people try to stay out of the wake of his passing. A smouldering low-key presence that can spike quickly and shine (as when he was forced to make a plea and tell grieving parents that their murdered daughter would get only partial justice, saying to his boss Cabot, “Don’t ever sell me out like that again,” in a cold tone of voice that was unmistakable).

Then there’s Milena Govich as Jessica Rossi, coming off like a younger, hotter, more serious version of Sarah Silverman. I completely forgot that she had an interesting role on Rescue Me, playing the divorced fireman Lou like a suede condom. Her intensity is contrasted with a romantic tension she has between the rookie Potter (her office mate) and the clenched jawed Steele.

The dynamics of this interesting ensemble is played well, keeping the camera moving and giving just enough characterization to make everybody work – at least in the first episode. The guest stars – Doug E. Doug as a charismatic deug defendant and an older judge practically coaching prosecutors via a bored bailiff – were well cast and overall the show combined that kind of Kevin Hill/Grey’s Anatomy youth and energy with classic Law & Order pacing and intensity.

Sadly, none of this will help.

You see, this show is scheduled for Friday nights at 10PM. Friday nights are a challenging night for TV executives, since that’s a night when the all-too-valuable 18-34 demographic are statistically not at home watching the tube. Friday night shows normally have a short shelf life, and the only quicker way to insure that a show will die is to stick it on Saturday night. For all of the resurgence of programming for adults and families, these two nights remain a Nielsens nightmare. This show may be carrying the stigma of Trial By Jury (which also lived and died on Friday night, despite a great crossover with both the main show and Criminal Intent), which is unfair since the death of Jerry Orbach, who was slated to be the familiar face and centerpiece of the show, cast a karmic pall over the endeavor despite the bravery of Scott Cohen doing his best Orbach impersonation and Bebe Neuwirth fruitlessly trying to escape the shadow of her character Lilth from Cheers and Frasier.

So just as Love Monkey or Boomtown or even the really sassy and mature Kevin Hill came and went, breaking hearts as they did, the schedule alone could kill this solid show, if not the staggering competition during the rest of the week. Enjoy it while it lasts … or not, since there won’t be much time either way.

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