Sometimes inspiration can strike in unexpected places. For writer and producer Danny Strong, watching a documentary about Amanda Knox proved to be the impetus that led to him co-creating (with David Elliot) the new Fox drama “Proven Innocent.”
“Watching the documentary on her case made me want to do something on wrongful conviction, because I was so enraged by it,” Strong tells Variety. “In these wrongful conviction cases the cops have no interest in them because the person’s been found guilty and is in prison; it’s closed. So wrongful conviction lawyers have to be their own investigators, and it can be very dangerous for them. And I thought, ‘Oh so it’s not just a straight legal show, it’s an investigation show, too’ and that just seemed really cool to me.”
“Proven Innocent” is centered on a woman named Madeline Scott (Rachelle Lefevre) who works for a law firm that focuses on such wrongful conviction cases — one that is modeled after the Innocence Project, Lefevre confirms — but whose own conviction for the work comes from something personal: she was put in prison for the murder of a childhood friend years before. As she works on others’ cases, she also tries to unravel the mystery of what really happened the night a teenage bonfire turned fatal for her friend.
Although Strong’s reaction to the Knox case was to be “enraged” by the “bias from the media that sensationalized her case [and] destroyed her life by what became a media firestorm case,” he created a fictional character with Madeline and therefore did not transfer his feelings about Knox directly on this creation. Lefevre shares that she specifically did not want to know whether or not Madeline was guilty of the past crime, instead preferring to “literally and figuratively open boxes from her past” along with her character in the episodes. But she says the “foundation of her core is that she believes she is innocent.”
What proved most challenging, but also drew Lefevre to the project, was the chance “to play someone who is a really smart, driven, capable, and for the most part successful lawyer, and yet really not a fully functioning human being in the world.”
Since Madeline spent her 20s in jail, “she’s missing this huge chunk of things,” Lefevre explains, such as formative experiences including a college experience, dating, and learning how to relate to family as an adult. “Then you add to that that she learned to relate to people in prison, and you would imagine that would make someone abrasive at the wrong times or socially awkward or afraid of situations.”
Adds Strong: “We’re trying to dramatize the psychological effects [and] consequences of what wrongful conviction law does to people.”
The show will unravel the truth about the murder of which Madeline was convicted through flashbacks, as well as present-day investigation to provide a close-ended story by the end of the 13-episode first season.
“I want her to be someone who moved around the world never feeling like she fit in, and I think the doubt we’re talking about plays into that, because what if you walked around and you were just afraid that at any moment somebody else knew better than you and they were going to expose you?” Lefevre says. “She takes every client personally because for better or for worse, she sees every client as herself, but even when she’s being a really good lawyer there are lots of times she’s going to cross the line or be inappropriate or not say the right thing or not have the right emotional reaction to something because she hasn’t learned how to do that.”
Strong acknowledges as a young, middle-class white girl Madeline was not the typical person to be wrongfully convicted. In order to be true to life, he and his writers’ room built out cases of the week that focused on “where the majority of the bias is” that leads to such wrongful convictions — namely people of color.
“We have a transgender case and we have a Muslim case that has anti-Muslim bias in it and a shaken baby case,” he says. “We’re exploring a different issue each week. Some of them are inspired by the headlines — loosely inspired by something — and we’re trying to tackle social issues and how bias against classes of people create wrongful convictions.”
On the other side of the courtroom is Gore Bellows (Kelsey Grammer), the prosecutor who put Madeline away and truly believes she was guilty, and who does a “couple of things that are a little shifty,” such as coaching a witness, Grammer reveals, in order to get the outcome he believes is true justice.
“Everybody asks is he a Republican or Democrat, and he’s a Democrat; he’s functioning in Chicago, and there are no Republicans working [there]. So is it refreshing to see that they’re all corrupt? I’d say that’s probably true,” Grammer says.
Grammer was hired after the original pilot episode was shot, replacing Brian d’Arcy James in the role. “At first he was a real mustache-twirling kind of guy, and I thought they’d written the character into a corner, and I thought, ‘Well I could probably help add a little bottom,'” Grammer says. “Our conversation was based on, ‘You’ve got to make him human. He’s got to have justifications for what he’s doing.'”
Grammer also saw this character as a chance to “play somebody I’ve never played before.” At first glance, he admits, the character reminded him of his “Boss” role, but he very quickly realized that “on ‘Boss’ the mayor had all of the power, and this guy has nothing,” which was interesting to him.
“He’s got a good nose for law and is probably a pretty successful prosecutor and didn’t need to cheat. [Madeline] is the one that made the career in his world and it is just maddening,” he says.
But, Strong acknowledges, because Madeline and Gore are both fighting for justice, in the end they do have a lot in common, they just approach their work from opposite sides.
“They’re both fighting for their truth, and I think they’re both willing to do things that cross the line to make sure that what they believe to be the truth comes to fruition. Does that mean that maybe there’s a case or two or three this season that they get someone guilty out without realizing it — or that the client who’s been wrongfully convicted isn’t as angelic as they seem? We’re going to be reversing expectations for our characters,” Strong says.
“Proven Innocent” premieres Feb. 15 on Fox.