The new Fox drama “Proven Innocent” would seem to be made for a moment in which many are looking more closely at the methods of prosecutors and seeing excesses in the criminal-justice system. Rachelle Lefevre plays Madeline Scott, imprisoned for years thanks in part to the zealous attention of a prosecutor (Kelsey Grammer) but then exonerated on appeal. In order, at first, to foil her nemesis’ run for political office, she makes it her mission to find people he’d put in jail who don’t deserve to be there — to, as the title says, prove the imprisoned innocent.
And it’s there that the show stumbles. The show’s obsession with “innocence” as a concept doesn’t in fact comport with the legal system’s privileging “guilt” or its absence. In our world, those who are let off by the legal system cannot be proven guilty; in this show’s, a seemingly harsh judge softens as she declares a defendant is “actually innocent,” before breaking into a glowing smile as wildly pumped-up audio of cheering in the courtroom explodes.
Divergence from chapter-and-verse fact is nothing new (and a TV series that moved at the pace and with the lack of levity of an actual court trial would be unwatchable). But the point of defending clients isn’t, or shouldn’t be, sussing out who is “actually innocent” — it’s providing a constitutionally guaranteed fair hearing to everyone, even those who may, in fact, be actually guilty but with cases studded with extenuating circumstances. Recalling his decision to represent Lefevre’s character when she was still in jail, Russell Hornsby muses, “Who’s going to fight for the innocent people behind bars who weren’t famous?” This formulation leaves out the criminals behind bars, who still deserve a defense.
This isn’t just a philosophical or a political question; it serves to defuse any tension that might exist in “Proven Innocent.” After watching two episodes of the series (Fox sent critics the show’s first and fourth installments), the premise — that Lefevre defends clients it’s apparent to her did not indeed commit the crimes for which they’ve been punished — erases the moral ambiguity that’s a hallmark of the best crime TV. The ongoing subplot about Lefevre trying to find “the real killer” of her childhood friend is little more interesting, running up against the fact that the show has introduced only one suspect, a character whose cruelty is beyond belief. The show’s overarching villain, too, makes the show’s stakes far too obvious: Grammer’s performance is his most puffily villainous yet, making Sideshow Bob of “The Simpsons” look complex and soft-spoken. As performed, he’s a noxious gasbag who demands from his first moments onscreen to be defeated, making the show an exercise in booing an opera buffa antagonist but not exactly one worth chewing on for longer than its airtime.
Of the rest of the ensemble — which includes Hornsby and “Mad Men” alum Vincent Kartheiser, both of whom deserve better — only Lefevre really stands out, not entirely positively. Her delivery of lines is unusual and offbeat, sometimes in ways that improve the script (her jokey objections and interjections in court scenes, this long post-“Ally McBeal,” could hardly be worse than they are on the page, so why not?), and sometimes in ways that make the show, and Madeline, a bit challenging to spend time with. She comes to seem like a person whose ability to interact with the world was badly stunted by her time in prison, someone who missed out on life in ways that were unfair. It’s a subtle, if perhaps accidental, note that’s the realest thing about a fairly ludicrous show. And it’s enough to make you wish this drama understood that Madeline’s story would have been one that reflected an unfair system hurting an individual, even if she weren’t innocent.
“Proven Innocent,” Fox, Feb. 15. Two episodes screened for review.
Rachelle Lefevre, Russell Hornsby, Vincent Kartheiser, Riley Smith, Kelsey Grammer, Nikki M. James, Clare O’Connor
Executive Producers: Danny Strong, David Elliot, Stacy Greenberg, Adam Armus