One positive development on TV in the past 30 or so years has been the way shows zero in on the flaws of our justice system. Rather than telling blindly affirming stories to make us feel that justice is always served, Perry Mason-style, TV writers have really dug into the loopholes, courtroom slip-ups, and, most of all, the human error and manipulation.
Contemporary TV writers, if you haven’t guessed it after “The Wire,” “The Sopranos,” and “Breaking Bad,” don’t really want you to sleep at night.
WE tv’s “The Divide” is yet another series hoping to remind us that sometimes the guilty get off scot-free, while the wrong people wind up behind bars. And the stakes are even higher in miscarriages of justice when the death sentence is in play. “The Divide” revolves around a fictional Philadelphia organization called the Innocence Initiative, which is based on the real-life Innocence Project, which works to exonerate wrongfully convicted people. Caseworker Christine Rosa (Marin Ireland) is trying to save Jared Bankowski (Chris Bauer), who was convicted for murdering a family, days before his execution. But District Attorney Adam Page (Damon Gupton) made his name years ago with that very conviction, and he is working hard against her.
Add race to the mix, and you’ve got another layer of complexity. The family that was killed was black, and so is Adam, while Jared is white; the original trial was fraught with racial tension. Meanwhile, one of the men in jail for being an accessory to the murders appears to be a White Supremacist. And then add on salient personal facts — that Christine’s father is currently on death row, and that Adam’s father, Isaiah Page (Clarke Peters), was the Philadelphia police commissioner at the time of the family murders — and you’ve got yet another layer. The show takes on enough story to more than fill its eight-episode run.
As WE tv’s first scripted effort, “The Divide” is relatively good news. It means that the network is pursuing an interesting and ambitious path. The series was written by Richard LaGravenese, whose body of work includes “The Fisher King,” “Behind the Candelabra,” and “Beloved,” and the co-creator and executive producer is Tony Goldwyn of “Scandal.” Goldwyn directed the similarly themed “Conviction,” a 2010 movie in which Hilary Swank played a woman who goes to law school to represent her wrongfully imprisoned brother.
Alas, “The Divide” isn’t all it could be, at least based on a preview of the extended premiere on Wednesday night at 9. The whole idea of a show involving death row and exoneration sounds a little like the extraordinary “Rectify,” but “The Divide” is a lot less thoughtful. The action moves too fast, so that, for instance, Christine keeps sharing new information about the murder case that we never see her collect. If it were Aaron Sorkin fast, with lots of thinky talk, that would be a different story, but “The Divide” is fast in a network don’t-let-them-get-bored way that ultimately underestimates the audience.
A bigger problem with “The Divide” is that the characters are reduced to types. LaGravenese rushes to put labels on each of them, instead of letting their natures emerge gradually and with more shadings. After a minute, you’ll know exactly who Innocence Initiative boss Clark Rylance (Paul Schneider) is. The actors aren’t bad at all, but the script seems to block them from deepening their performances and coloring in the gray along the way. Perhaps after the frantic setup of the premiere, they will have more room to move. I hope so. The issues on “The Divide” are well worth pursuing, but we need to be more engaged by the company we keep along the way.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.