Television

Review: Fox’s new procedural ‘Proven Innocent’ tries hard to squeeze ‘Serial’s’ podcast

PROVEN INNOCENT: Rachelle Lefevre in the “The Burden of Truth” episode of PROVEN INNOCENT airing Fri
Rachelle Lefevre is a wrongfully convicted ex-con working to free others wrongfully convicted in the Fox legal procedural “Proven Innocent.”
(Jean Whiteside / Fox)
Television Critic

“Proven Innocent,” which premieres Friday on Fox, focuses on Chicago attorney Madeline Scott (Rachelle Lefevre) and her Injustice Defense Group, a law firm solely dedicated to the issue of wrongful convictions — as we are told in the course of a podcast, rich in expository dialogue, emanating from the very heart of its brick-and-beam, open-plan headquarters.

Indeed, how to translate the immensely popular podcast “Serial,” whose first season also involved a possible wrongful conviction, into a weekly legal procedural seems to be a question this show was constructed to answer.

Artificial and obvious, long on expository dialogue but somehow short on information, little in it feels convincing. Though just as you never know what crazy story a jury will decide to swallow, there are surely viewers who will be swayed by its arguments.

Like most legal procedurals, the series is issue-oriented. Yet it’s all personal with Madeline, who spent 10 years behind bars, along with brother Levi (Riley Smith), for the murder of her high school best friend. She studied law in prison, went to Yale on her release — top of her class, naturally — and now has set up shop in Chicago with partner Easy Boudreau (Russell Hornsby), the lawyer who got their convictions overturned.

Just how Easy sprung them is not specified in the two episodes available to review; no other suspect has ever been identified, and you do smell a long arc in the offing. But perhaps the writers are saving that for a special episode. Or have not figured it out yet themselves.

PROVEN INNOCENT: L-R: Guest star Liza Colón-Zayas, Russell Hornsby and Rachelle Lefevre in the “Pi
Guest star Liza Colón-Zayas, left, with attorneys played by Russell Hornsby and Rachelle Lefevre in Fox's "Proven Innocent."
(Adrian Burrows / Fox)

Madeline’s work will pit her against the prosecutor on her own case, the hilariously named States Attorney Gore Bellows (Kelsey Grammer, enjoying himself in a typical late-period Kelsey Grammer role, Decadent Frasier Crane). Bellows, whose work there was either flawed or corrupt, has his eye on becoming attorney general of Illinois and then, maybe, like Peter Florrick in “The Good Wife,” its governor. Madeline considers him a cancer that must be stopped; he still thinks she’s guilty.

Also on hand are communications director Violet Price (Nikki M. James), who runs the podcast, and hyperactive investigator Bodie Quick, played by Vincent Kartheiser, with neck tattoo, a million miles away from “Mad Men’s” Pete Campbell, but not so far from the part played variously by Archie Panjabi, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Sarah Steele and Nyambi Nyami on “The Good Wife” — that show again! — and its ongoing sequel “The Good Fight,” whose playbook “Proven Innocent” seems to have studied, if not exactly copied.

Those series can be fantastic in their picture of legal procedure and politics and too convenient in their use of eleventh-hour discoveries, but they distract you with witty repartee on the one hand and an impression of naturalism on the other. Here the dialogue, weighted with explicit statements of thought and feeling rather than their sidelong evocation, is often too heavy for even these fine actors to successfully lift.

The supplied courtroom chuckling, a sort of dramatic canned laughter that accompanies Madeline’s courtroom quips only goes so far. (Bellows: “We prosecutors are also human beings.” Madeline: “Objection — assumes facts not in evidence.”)

PROVEN INNOCENT: L-R: Guest star Laurie Holden and Kelsey Grammer in the “Pilot” series premiere epi
Kelsey Grammer, right, plays an ambitious prosecutor in the Fox legal drama "Proven Innocent."
(Jean Whiteside / Fox)

Like a judge in one episode who keeps insisting that what is highly, highly unlikely is nevertheless still possible, the willing viewer can invent reasons for behavior that seems … highly, highly unlikely. As in the very first scene, when Madeline, in some sketchy neighborhood, comes alone to the door of a person she knows to be a killer in order to ask him for a DNA sample — even after she sees that he’s holding a gun. (His reaction may surprise you — something that will happen infrequently as the series goes on.) Or when Levi is called into court as a defendant after having been attacked with a baseball bat. Or Bodie goes undercover as a recruit in the Chicago fire department to ask questions whose answers he might have found on Google.

But that work, ideally, should not rest upon your shoulders.

To be sure, even a weak television series can take on a patina of life as the show itself, its collaborators and characters exist over time, weathering like leather, breaking in like boots. The fact that the second of the two episodes available for review does not follow immediately upon the pilot, but comes a few episodes into the season, suggests that the producers are aware things might look better a little way down the road.

And things do improve, in a way, as the series becomes not less of a melodrama but more sentimental and sensational — more tears, more sex, more turmoil. Grammer’s character, who seems at least dedicated to his work in the pilot, sincere and even a little melancholy, lacks only a mustache to twirl in the later episode. But there will be cackling.

‘Proven Innocent’

Where: Fox

When: 9 p.m. Friday

Rating: TV-14-DLV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence)

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd