The Weakness of His 'Conviction'

Stephanie March and her character Alexandra Cabot move from
Stephanie March and her character Alexandra Cabot move from "Law & Order: SVU" to Dick Wolf's new show. (By Will Hart -- Nbc Via Associated Press)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 3, 2006

Bang bang -- you're bored.

With "Conviction," premiering tonight on NBC, producer Dick Wolf might have shoved his little crime-drama pushcart down one too many a city block. Like Chico Marx in "A Day at the Races," he's palming off just a few too many heavily padded books disguised as "tootsie-fruitsie ice cream."

Ironically, Wolf has finally worked up the courage to vary from the established, nearly self-parodying formula that has made him six or seven fortunes via "Law & Order" and its numerous spin-offs. Many's the viewer, however -- especially the hard-core "L&O" fans -- who will wish that Wolf had played it safe and hewed to that formula without ever straying. After all, it does appear to be working -- and working several times a week, at that.

"Law & Order" dramas are remarkable for their spare, no-frills, exposition-heavy structure, as distinctive a trademark for Wolf as all those clipped sentences and deadpan deliveries were for Jack Webb with "Dragnet" and its progeny years ago. The "Law & Order" series are sort of the thinking man's "Dragnet," dealing with solidly relevant issues as they dramatize criminal cases that often, despite the perfunctory disclaimer, seem very similar to actual news stories from three, four or more months earlier.

One could grow extremely fond of the continuing characters on these shows without ever learning very much about them. There wasn't time for us to visit their homes and play peekaboo with their spouses and offspring, if any. By merely sketching out the characters rather than giving us fully detailed portraits, "L&O" writers invite us to complete the personalities in our heads as we watch them do their jobs.

"Law & Order" and its clones are participatory storytelling -- true interactive television.

With "Conviction," Wolf turns over an unwelcome new leaf. He stops the investigations in their tracks to give us the "back stories" -- details about the home lives, romantic lives and mostly the sex lives of his ambitious young characters, legal eaglets working as assistant district attorneys in and for the city of New York.

At last we'll go beyond the very cryptic office behavior, and dialogue, of the attractive dramatis personae and follow them into the nooks and crannies of their living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms, right? But guess what: Who cares? It's a step forward that's a step backward. The characters' lives just aren't fascinating, and by reverting to a more traditional way of telling crime stories, Wolf simply reminds us how superior his other version is.

The characters in "Conviction" are younger than the usual "L&O" crowds, which should make them livelier and wilier -- and, of course, hotter -- than the Sam Waterstons and the S. Epatha Merkersons. The new kids might have those alleged virtues, but they're so young that their youth defines them; we pretty much know they'll either be naive, dewy-eyed idealists or ruthless, sexy upstarts.

The cast in the pilot includes Stephanie March -- having been transplanted, along with the assistant DA she plays, from "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" -- as dear a sweetheart as Little Buttercup from Gilbert & Sullivan's "H.M.S. Pinafore." She's easily contrasted with the striking young actor Eric Balfour (whose first big break seems to have been on HBO's "Six Feet Under") as Brian Peluso, a brash, highly practical manipulator whose vices include heavy-duty gambling debts owed to the less than scrupulous.

Ever since Balfour made his prime-time entrance, I've been trying to figure out which famous actor of olden times he resembled (he has the ability to play members of various ethnic groups) and seeing him again on "Conviction," I finally figured it out: He's Basil Rathbone, a dashingly versatile gent who could play a noble Sherlock Holmes or a swine dueling Danny Kaye (in "The Court Jester"). Trust me on this one: Eric Balfour is Basil Rathbone redux.

Others filling out the scorecards on "Young DAs" (as the show really begs to be campily called): Julianne Nicholson as sweet Christina Finn, Milena Govich as another tough young team member (frankly, it's not only hard but pointless to try telling them all apart) and, impressively, Jordan Bridges as Nick Potter, a well-educated rich kid who could be working in a posh Park Avenue firm but wants to try cases here in hell instead. Like other novices in the show's early episodes, he flubs and bumbles his first case in court, earning him a lecture or two from the judge and jeers of derision from his fellow Young Turks.

That's another trouble with the show, though; the young DAs waste too much time making elementary mistakes in their various courtrooms and then suffering for it later. In tonight's script by Walon Green and Rick Eid, that note is played to death.

Eventually the kids make so many mistakes that a viewer gets the feeling he's watching "The At-Best Semi-Competent Young District Attorneys." Wolf should know that the audience won't care to learn more about the private lives of people whose professional lives are messes.

"Conviction" has plenty of polish on the surface, as any Wolf show would, but it also needs a great deal of fine-tuning before it will be truly see-worthy -- so much fine-tuning that there might not be enough time left in the current TV season to do it all.

Conviction (60 minutes) debuts tonight at 10 on Channel 4.

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