It’s remarkable how interchangeable “Notorious” and “Conviction” are. Hayley Atwell is in one, and Piper Perabo leads the other, but you’d be forgiven for confusing the lesser details, like which one is a take on Larry King or has a presidential campaign subplot. Both are steamy procedurals that combine legal thriller with media circus, playing up high-profile clients, sensational crimes, and the sexy people involved. Both are led by beautiful white women, making the most of their business formal wardrobes in expensive high heels and blazers. Both women have smoldering sexual tension with a man — the second-billed actor — that crosses both personal and professional boundaries, while also throwing off sexual tension that tries very hard to light the screen on fire (and occasionally succeeds).
And, most importantly, both read as messy, incomplete dramas that appear to be blatant attempts to rework the “Scandal” template with a few different bells and whistles. The similarity of the two shows suggests that ABC is looking for a new, buzzy female-driven hit to add to its repertoire, and hopes that tossing out two baited hooks to the viewers is better than one. But because both shows feel incomplete — either because they are lacking key connective tissue or because they are stuffed with too much connective tissue — it’s hard to imagine audiences taking the bait for either.
Of the two, it’s “Conviction” that is the stronger pilot. Primarily this is because of the force of character that Atwell, an actress with talent well beyond what’s required of her here, brings to the role of Hayes Morrison, a former president’s daughter who might become one again, as now her mother is running for president. Hayes has a problem with drugs and a problem, too, with staying out of trouble, so in the pilot she’s shoehorned by her mother into the thankless job of heading up a conviction review team under the Manhattan District Attorney, played by Eddie Cahill. But Hayes finds a certain amount of self-respect in the process of trying to exonerate the wrongly convicted, and surrounded by a team with varying degrees of respect for her, falls into the accepted format for a case-of-the-week procedural. “Conviction’s” problem is that it wants Hayes to be all things — moral center, bad girl, political pawn, power attorney, femme fatale. Atwell is skilled, but with just 42 minutes and a whole murder case to get through, her First Daughter backstory and the wide net cast for her character feel a lot like grasping at distant, barely visible straws.
Still, “Conviction” is a fun watch, and a series that will likely resolve its initial hiccups. “Notorious,” on the other hand, is a nearly wall-to-wall mess. Perabo is the producer for a news show that, we’re informed, is a big deal; and for some reason, that means that she has a strong relationship with a charismatic defense attorney played by Daniel Sunjata. Naturally, the two alternate between helping and manipulating each other, but so confusingly — and so listlessly — that it’s hard to get invested in the outcome. “Notorious” is based on the behind-the-scenes relationship between “Larry King Live” producer Wendy Walker and high-profile defense attorney Mark Geragos, who has defended celebrities like Michael Jackson, Winona Ryder, Chris Brown, and Scott Peterson.
But the “Notorious” pilot fails to sell its version of “Larry King Live” — “Louise Herrick Live,” anchored by Kate Jennings Grant’s character — as culturally significant or particularly well-regarded. Similarly, Sunjata’s Jake does not get the appropriate treatment to transform him into a smarmy, savvy lawyer to the stars. As a result, every convoluted plot twist of the pilot feels like an unnecessary embellishment on top of an already nonsensical premise — because the show also fails to explain why this producer and this lawyer being friends with each other is unusual or interesting. And while “Conviction” at least draws together a cheerful ensemble who are already halfway settled into their series-long personae, very few characters in “Notorious” fail to make an impression. Jennings Grant stands out as a scene-stealing diva in the midst of a pilot desperately throwing everything it has at the screen.
It’s interesting that ABC is so keen to sell a show in this mold that it’s offered viewers two choices of varying quality. Watching both back-to-back is to observe several types of press conferences, interrogations, alleged murderers, and sexy encounters with coworkers — when those same coworkers aren’t trying to sell each other out. It’s a specific fantasy of work, romance, and crime; a specific meditation on celebrity, scandal, and the media’s relationship to both. Above all, it’s interesting just how much of both shows takes place on screens watching screens; just as in “Notorious,” Perabo’s character Julia watches her own show and other broadcasts, in “Conviction” Atwell’s Hayes watches the coverage of her own public appearances and press conferences with a jaundiced eye. The sexiness of both shows isn’t just the actors getting action; it’s the attention paid to watching, the scrutiny of scrutiny. And, of course, the peppy pop music accompanying each montage.
TV Review: ‘Notorious’
Drama, pilot reviewed: ABC, Thurs. Sept. 22, 9 p.m. 60 min.
Crew: Executive producers, Josh Berman, Jeff Kwatinetz, Josh Barry, Kenny Meiselas, Mark Geragos, Wendy Walker, Jennifer Cecil, Mike Listo.
Cast: Piper Perabo, Daniel Sunjata, Kate Jennings Grant, Aimeé Teegarden, J. August Richards, Sepideh Moafi, Ryan Guzman, Kevin Zegers
TV Review: ‘Conviction’
Drama, pilot reviewed: ABC, Mon. Oct. 3, 10 p.m. 60 min.
Crew: Executive producers, Mark Gordon, Liz Friedman, Liz Friedlander, Nicholas Pepper
Cast: Hayley Atwell, Eddie Cahill, Shawn Ashmore, Merrin Dungey, Emily Kinney, Manny Montana, Daniel Franzese