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‘For Life’: ABC Uses a True Story to Show the Possibility of Change In the Criminal Justice System

At TCA, the creator, cast, and inspiration of the new drama talk about how the show explores the "hidden victims" of incarceration.

FOR LIFE - Inspired by the life of Isaac Wright Jr., "For Life" is a fictional serialized legal and family drama about a prisoner who becomes a lawyer, litigating cases for other inmates while fighting to overturn his own life sentence for a crime he didn't commit. His quest for freedom is driven by his desperate desire to get back to the family he loves and reclaim the life that was stolen from him. The show will also, through the window of his ferocious struggle and his complicated relationship with a progressive female prison warden, examine the flaws and challenges in our penal and legal systems. (ABC/Giovanni Rufino)TYLA HARRIS, NICHOLAS PINNOCK

“For Life”

ABC/Giovanni Rufino

Legal dramas present their own particular challenge in TV, and when one is based on a real-life individual, it brings some added pressure to the people at the center of the show. This was the case for “For Life” star Nicholas Pinnock, who plays a character based on Isaac Wright Jr., a man who rose to become a licensed attorney after serving a prison sentence based on a false conviction.

“For me, it was important to grab an essence of who he was. The way he deals with things, his composure, his level-headedness, his steady demeanor was something I felt was important to capture for the role,” Pinnock said on Wednesday at the Television Critics Association Winter 2020 Press Tour.

Wright Jr. is an executive producer on the series. Being an active part of the show’s production meant that he had a chance to reflect on his experiences in a way that he hadn’t been able to before.

“Twenty four hours a day, there are these distractions that dull your focus. I had to develop such an intense focus that I had to change my character and be someone else. I spent so much time fighting that I did not really consider what I was going through until all these years later,” Wright Jr. said. “When I had the opportunity to be on set and watch Nicholas perform, for the first time, in watching Nicholas’ performance, I was able to see myself as a third person. It became a therapeutic process for me to watch Nicholas and move through episode by episode with him. He was somebody that allowed me to reflect on the pain that I was going through at that time.”

Multiple panelists, including series creator Hank Steinberg discussed the ways the show’s approach differs from other series that have taken place inside the criminal justice system, including “When They See Us.” “Money cannot give you back the pricelessness of what you lost. I became the system in a way that was triumphant. I was a victim of the system and ultimately became a better part of the system,” Wright Jr. said.

The show follows Pinnock as Aaron Wallace, who mirrors Wright Jr.’s story by fighting for wrongfully incarcerated individuals using knowledge of the legal system that he picks up from his time in prison. “For Life” also includes different people in Aaron’s orbit, including a mentor of sorts in the form of Timothy Busfield’s character Henry Roswell. Steinberg was clear that he wanted Busfield’s character to not be a perfect lawyerly savior for Aaron’s journey, but that the show still made room to show how he and other individuals within the criminal justice system are able to provide a path forward to Aaron in the same way Wright Jr. found one.

“In 2020, how are good people who are working within the system, who maybe want to change the system in some way, what are they up against? What can they try to do and how is one hand tied behind their back?” Steinberg said.

Steinberg said that the bigger world of “For Life,” which also stars “Game of Thrones” vet Indira Varma and executive producer Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson,  encompasses not just the hardships that Aaron faced, but those faced by his family.

“His freedom and his ability to be with the people he loves has been stolen from him,” Steinberg said. “The hidden victims of what happens to people who are unfairly incarcerated or overcharged are the families that are left behind and the incredible damage that’s done to the family unit. They’re sort of the heart of the show.”

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