Everyone is Guilty of Something
By John Unger Zussman
Stories are transformative. They have the power to change our minds and open our hearts, to help us experience the world through other eyes and walk a mile in other shoes. For example, I would argue that stories, as much as any political action, boosted popular support for LGBT equality and led to legalization of gay marriage in 19 states and counting. Living season after season with sympathetic gay characters in Will & Grace and Modern Family, or watching two men fall hopelessly in love in Brokeback Mountain, taught mainstream Americans what decades of argument and invective couldn’t—that gay people are just people.
That’s why I’m excited about a new TV drama that premieres this week as WE tv’s first scripted original series. It’s called The Divide and it stars Marin Ireland as Christine Rosa, a third-year Philadelphia law student and caseworker with the Innocence Initiative, which, like the real-life Innocence Project on which it is modeled, uses DNA testing to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners. Christine unearths new evidence in the case of Jared Bankowski (Chris Bauer), a white convict awaiting imminent execution for the brutal murder of the African-American Butler family twelve years earlier. Christine pushes for a stay of execution and a DNA retest of Bankowski, and encounters resistance from her boss Clark Rylance (Paul Schneider), prosecutor Adam Page (Damon Gupton), and surprisingly from the convicted man himself. But her own family history with the criminal justice system inflames her passion, and she’s willing to break the rules to press on. “I don’t like it when the law gets manipulated by people who think they matter more than other people,” she tells Bankowski. “I hate their arrogance. I hate that they feel safe. I hate that they feel entitled to feel safe. I want to make them sweat, even if they win. Don’t you?”
If the stars sound unfamiliar, don’t worry. The acting is excellent, led by Ireland’s understated intensity; she served an internship with the Innocence Project after she was cast. Production values are solid and the show’s pedigree is sterling. The Divide is the brainchild of actor/director/producer Tony Goldwyn (you might know him as President Fitzgerald Grant on ABC’s Scandal) and producer Andrew Sugerman, who collaborated in 2010 on the feature film Conviction. That movie starred Hillary Swank in the true story of Betty Anne Waters, a working-class mom who obtained her GED and put herself through college and law school to free her falsely convicted brother from prison. (Full disclosure: Sugerman is a friend and colleague.)
Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, served as an advisor to Conviction and was portrayed in it. When Scheck spoke at the movie’s Hollywood premiere, he introduced nine of the now 316 wrongfully convicted prisoners (18 of them on death row) who have been freed due to the organization’s work. Goldwyn became an active supporter of the Project and co-chairs its Artists’ Committee. “Every single story is inherently, extraordinarily dramatic,” he told Sugerman, and he agreed, “There’s got to be a TV series here.”
He was right—in spades. I have a few quibbles after viewing the first hour of The Divide, such as the inelegant way Adam, the prosecutor, reveals an important secret. But pilot episodes are notoriously difficult—trust me, I recently wrote one—because they have to introduce the characters and explain the essential backstory while simultaneously telling the show’s first story. The Divide is eminently successful in drawing us in and making us care. More importantly, it has great potential to take us inside a world we haven’t seen.
I’ve had my own encounter with the criminal justice system in the last few years, helping an incarcerated relative appeal a conviction based on misinterpreted scientific evidence, so I’ve seen a bit of how it works from the inside. Most of our stories about the justice system portray prosecutors, judges, and cops as the Good Guys. And many of them are—but they’re good in a complex way. Even in the stories where these characters are corrupt, it’s not the same as showing us the system’s inherent bias against defendants.
The Divide doesn’t shy away from portraying the system’s complexity or fragility. In the first hour, Adam gets almost as much screen time as Christine. He made his reputation by convicting Bankowski in the first place, and we see the pressures on him to win, to appease his African-American supporters, and to achieve “justice” for the murdered family’s one surviving member, no matter the cost. The show is perched on this gray area of moral ambiguity.
Most of us keep the criminal justice system at a distance, on the expectation that if we haven’t done anything wrong, we have nothing to fear. But when hundreds—or more likely thousands—of people can be accused, tried, convicted, and imprisoned for crimes they demonstrably did not commit, no one is safe. After all, as the show’s tag line says, everyone is guilty of something.
There’s a rich trove to mine here—of morality, ambition, ethics, politics, and race. I hope that, over its eight-episode season, The Divide will take us deep into this world. If it does, it will be not just a good TV show but a transformative story, changing the way we think and feel about the complex, inexact, and very human matter of crime and punishment. The criminal justice system affects us all, and we need to do more than just avoid jury duty and vote for the candidate who promises us law and order.
The Divide premieres Wednesday, July 17, with a two-hour episode on WE tv. (Check cable and satellite listings.) Until then, the first hour is available on demand as well as on Roku and wetv.com.
Cross-posted in my “Power of Story” series on LinkedIn.