The American justice system is broken. As we’ve seen time and again from countless documentaries, young men are pinned for crimes they didn’t commit and forced to do time. Teaming up ABC, Executive Producer Curtis Jackson (50 Cent) delivers a court-room/prison thriller mash-up called For Life, which gets off to a great start here. There’s something both grounded and realistic about this one, merging elements from other popular fiction to deliver something that feels both familiar and original.
First episodes are usually a little rough around the edges but aside from a heavy dose of exposition early on, For Life does a surprisingly good job introducing its main cast of characters and drawing the battle lines very early on for the conflict to come. For Life establishes a consistent tone almost immediately and builds the foundation for some good episodic content to follow.
Episode 1 of For Life begins with an introduction to our main protagonist, Aaron Wallace, who’s thrown in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Whilst serving his time, he returns to the courthouse with determination and to right the wrong inflicted on him, acting as a lawyer for fellow prisoner Jose Rodriguez and promising to get him retribution for being imprisoned. This is actually Wallace’s first case in front of the judge too, so no pressure then! To make things even more tense, on the opposite side is one of the lawyers that originally put him away.
As we cut back in time, we see Aaron studying law in his jail cell and as exposition follows, we learn he actually joined the Para-legal case team and worked his way up from the bottom. This is all a long-game to get his freedom, case by case, and to hit back at the DA that put him away. His wife Marie visits him that afternoon and it turns out Aaron had an original plea deal for 20 years but he turned it down, which is why he now has life in prison.
One of the Nazis, Wild Bill, asks Aaron to represent his client but for now, our protagonist remains open but guarded at the prospect of doing this. In private, the Warden gives the good news to Aaron that he’s managed to convince the judge to allow Rodriguez to have a re-trial, and it’s here we also learn he’s working with her to watch the guards.
In the courtroom, Aaron is attacked on all sides but he continues to examine Rodriguez’s case. After promising to bring in the police officer and the drug dealer from the scene, Wallace goes on to publically declare that there’ an epidemic sweeping America – a move that puts Bronx DA Glen Maskins in the firing line.
Unfortunately a planned detour in the bus forces Aaron to be 2 hours late and his witnesses to be corrupted by the powers that be, twisting the system against him again and causing a big outburst from Aaron in court, who’s lucky not to have his license revoked.
Back in jail, Wallace is berated by the warden until he visits Rodriguez and finds him high. However, he also finds a hand-written letter from Molly, prompting him to liaise with the other inmates and forge the hand-written letter to fool the Judge. This allows Wallace to approach the Judge again and make Molly testify in person. It does the trick too and she caves soon after, admitting to the court she lied because her parents forced her to hide the truth.
Rodriguez is freed and Wallace heads back to jail as a newfound celebrity, with a whole stack of cases to deal with. The Warden tells him to cool off, warning him that while he’s won the battle he may not win the war – especially going after Maskins. As the episode closes out, Jasmine arrives and tells Aaron the reason she hasn’t been to the prison is that she’s pregnant. She’s having a boy and naming him after her Father. She makes him promise to do everything to get out of prison and this is enough to convince Aaron to knuckle down and work.
No more long game; no more biding his time. Whatever it takes, Aaron Wallace is getting out of prison.
The idea of an inmate rising up the ranks and fighting back against an unjust system isn’t a wholly original concept but spinning this into a courtroom drama works surprisingly well here. Aaron is a really empathetic character too and no doubt some of the cases he’ll be presented within the coming weeks will undoubtedly test him both mentally and physically.
Aside from a couple of zoom shots and heavy bouts of exposition early on, For Life gets off to a strong start and certainly comes out the gates swinging. Whether it has the stamina to go the distance without sagging or feeling formulaic in the middle remains to be seen but for now, For Life is certainly one to watch.