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'For Life' Tries Too Hard But Don't Convict It Too Quickly
February 11, 2020  | By David Hinckley

The real-life tale of Isaac Wright Jr., who lawyered himself out of a wrongful drug conviction and a lengthy prison sentence, needs no enhancement.

The creators of For Life, which is rooted in Wright's story and launches at 10 p.m. ET Tuesday on ABC, didn't agree.

To be fair, For Life is a drama, not a documentary, and it captures much of the "against all odds" element that makes the story inspiring. Not one inmate in a thousand, it's fair to say, could have cleared the hurdles Wright faced.

The problem lies in the layers of dramatic extras that For Life keeps slapping on top of an already rich and satisfying tale.

Nicholas Pinnock plays Aaron Wallace, the Wright character, and plays him well, with a fitting combination of frustrated rage and carefully calculated cool. Wallace knows that, however just his cause, he sits at the mercy of the system, and uncontrolled anger can only work against him.

His original crime, oversimplified just a bit, was hanging out with the wrong people. When they were busted for drugs, a lot of drugs, Wallace became the fall guy and was sentenced to life.

That's approximately in line with what happened to Wright, who was busted in New Jersey in 1991 and became the first person sentenced under New Jersey's harsh "drug kingpin" law. The real-life Wright also got a life sentence, but unlike Wallace, he had the possibility of parole.

While that may seem like a small tweak, it underscores the obvious feeling of the For Life producers that it's better television if they make the story more dramatic at every turn.

The TV Wallace becomes a lawyer, accredited by the California and New York bar associations, while still in prison. Wright did not.

Corrupt Bronx District Attorney Glen Maskins (Boris McGiver), who is running for state attorney general, tampers with Wallace's witnesses and lies to judges when Wallace represents other inmates in their challenges to long sentences.

One of Wallace's few allies in the system, reform-minded prison warden Kate (Indira Varma), supports his efforts to help other inmates and ultimately challenge his own conviction.

But Kate is married to Anya (Mary Stuart Masterson), the Brooklyn district attorney who is running against Maskins for attorney general. So Kate asks Wallace to lie low until after the election, fearing that backlash from any missteps could help elect Maskins, who would then shut reforms and Wallace down for good.

Meanwhile, Wallace's wife, Marie (Joy Bryant), is now living with Wallace's (perhaps former) best friend, which causes some issues for Wallace and Marie's teenage daughter, Jasmine (Tyla Harris). 
And then – surprise, surprise – Jasmine develops an issue of her own.

All of this while Wallace gets a request from several members of the Aryan Brotherhood to help challenge their sentences as well. While he's not keen on the idea, it's possible they could bring resources to his poorly equipped table.

Quite possibly, some of these dramatic details reflect dilemmas faced by Isaac Wright Jr.  
It also should be stressed that since For Life was conceived and sold as drama, it has no obligation to follow any real-life template.

That said, For Life just feels overstuffed. We get that unfair prison sentences are an awful thing, and that there's considerable satisfaction in seeing them successfully challenged. We're going to root from the start for a man who mounts that challenge despite having none of the resources that make things happen these days, like power, contacts, or money.

So yes, For Life does feel uplifting. It's also a pleasure to have a black inmate rely on himself, not the benevolence of a white "angel."

Thing is, it would feel just as uplifting if there weren't an exclamation mark in every scene, and if some of the pivotal moments didn't feel made for television.

If they didn't feel made for television, of course, maybe they wouldn't be on television.

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