For Life

3 out of 5

Created by: Hank Steinberg

covers season 1

The real life story of Isaac Wright, Jr. is maybe a little more grey and muddled than the TV show – For Life – that it inspired.  Which sincerely isn’t meant to diminish Wright’s accomplishments, but if you start to question whether or not Hank Steinberg’s adaptation of events, in which convicted-on-drug-kingpin-charges Aaron Wallace (Nicholas Pinnock) earns his law degree in prison, then starts taking on cases to fight the corrupt system that unjustly imprisoned him seems a little too good to be true, well, yes, it very literally is.

But it’s undeniably a great setup, and the real world inspirations give it a taint of legitimacy that grounds it from becoming a simple twist on a law procedural; instead, court cases are a backdrop to many smartly interlaced subplots: a wife (Joy Bryant) who’s waiting for Wallace to sign divorce papers while she pursues a relationship with Aaron’s friend; an understanding but tough warden (Indira Varma) who has to juggle the politics of Wallace’s pursuits against different government and police bigwigs with the business of running her prison; the double-dealings and life lessons that come from trying to represent your fellow inmates in cases in which they’re maybe kinda guilty; the big cogs of the DEA and NYPD and other such organizations that employ evil people, but are not wholly evil corporations…

Wallace himself is written a bit maudlin, with Pinnock thus left to mope around when his ever-shifting role in the prison should require a bit more calculated approach, but the actor matches the generally weighty tone of the show, and more importantly gives Wallace’s struggles (to get his degree; to deal with family concerns; to battle the charges against him) appropriate gravitas, and makes us believe in the way Wallace approaches them..  Varma is the standout, though, also given a position in which she has to sift through incredibly difficult decisions and talking and thinking and toughing her way through them such that the viewer trusts her, and in her desire to improve prison life.

Some of the other characters don’t necessarily deserve the episodic spotlight they get, as their roles as subplot padding are too clear; there’s a question of how long a show like this can go on, as Wallace’s “I’m going to win my case this time” mentality, only to be met by some new evidence or foiling tactic in court can only be repeated so many times… which is about when producer 50 Cent shows up as a tuff new inmate who starts making Wallace’s life especially difficult.  This is still padding, but 50 clearly enjoys playing the hard-edge Cassius, and it gives the series the room to go all in with some foul play that matches that maudlin tone.

Overall, For Life benefits from being able to dip its toes into several different drama / procedural buckets, and has some compelling lead performances to keep the our viewing time most generally worthwhile.