‘For Life’ and Black incarceration; The twin meanings of ‘Twisty’
Nicholas Pinnock (right) and Felonious Munk in ‘For Life’

The best network series in what might be a coronavirus-abbreviated season is ABC’s For Life, a combination prison/courtroom drama about an innocent African-American inmate sentenced to life imprisonment for being a drug kingpin. The series is based on the true story of Issac Wright Jr., a New Jersey inmate who used his time in prison to become a legal counselor and claimed to have freed 20 unlawfully jailed prisoners.

Similarly, Aaron Wallace, a club owner—as Wright was a promoter who claimed he put together the Latina Girl Group The Cover Girls—is jailed by an ambitious and corrupt Illinois prosecutor, Glen Maskins, who is running for Chicago District Attorney. In order to free himself, Wallace studies to become a lawyer, takes the bar, becomes the legal representative for the inmates and begins an aggressive campaign against the would-be DA attempting to prove a pattern of faulty convictions.

For Life is a brand-new wrinkle on the courtroom drama by crossing it with the prison series and by emphasizing the unfairness of the legal system and the ways African Americans, Hispanics, and poor whites are caught in the crosshairs of a system that presumes them guilty from the start. This is a system where tainted evidence and lack of investigation characterize the actions of the prejudiced police and politically ambitious prosecutors.

It is stirring to watch Aaron—who changes each week out of his orange prison jumpsuit into the tailored suit of a lawyer and then appears before a judge—masterfully arguing his cases. By being in prison and having access to the stories of inmates, and through his own interaction with the law, Aaron is able to take into court a point of view and perspective on the legal system the lawyers on the opposite side of the courtroom do not have.

He is also accused of cutting corners himself in his defense of the inmates. On being confronted with this by a liberal female warden who is on his side he answers that with all the obstacles against him, it is up to him where to draw the line. The ultimate statement about his predicament occurs when he is reprimanded by a Black cop whom he asks to illegally obtain his police file, which he is barred from seeing. To Aaron’s declaration that the procedure is unfair, the cop replies, “You should have thought of that before—.” Aaron interrupts him with, “Before what, I decided to be Black in America?” The cop folds under this logic and grants Aaron his request.

The show was produced by 50 Cent, Curtis James Jackson III, a victim and perpetrator of street violence who was arrested for dealing and was once shot nine times before establishing a highly successful career as a rapper. He wanted to tell Wright’s story, and Wright himself is grateful he was able to address the wrong in his own situation and hopes that the show will be “a beacon of hope and inspiration” for the “thousands of people” wrongly incarcerated that he left behind.

The series is tightly constructed and owes something not only, of course, in the prison context to the landmark HBO series Oz but also to a short-lived courtroom drama from last season Proven Innocent, where the female Caucasian protagonist becomes a lawyer equally to escape her own wrongful conviction and then after being freed becomes an advocate for the underprivileged. She is pursued by a bullying prosecutor (Frazier’s and Boss’s Kelsey Grammer) also running a political campaign, who put her in prison and wants to put back behind bars. The character of the prosecutor especially owes much to this Fox series which that network quickly dropped.

For Life ups the ante by having its protagonist still in prison and battling to get out, and most crucially by adding the element of that most incarcerated class, Black men, whose imprisonment is often not based on guilt or innocence but on a systemic need to discipline a recalcitrant and rebellious population and to fill the jail cells of a multi-billion-dollar industry that has become a boondoggle for private enterprise. In the Bible, Aaron is the older brother of Moses, and his spokesman, who led the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt and to freedom. Each week this Aaron attempts the same for a people equally still often shackled for no reason other than prejudice and profit.

The trailer can be seen here.

Twin Meanings of ‘Twisty’

Alfred Hitchcock talked about the differences between what he called coincidence and suspense. Coincidence was the result of a poorly constructed plot involving a mystery that seems to simply assemble random events and betrays its own shoddy construction. Suspense, on the other hand, meant involving the audience in a series of events that gripped them and made them a part of the plot because they knew what the characters were going through.

In the era of peak and binge TV, a contemporary buzzword is “twisty.” The word has a positive connotation and indicates not just as previously a surprise ending (say in such films as The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense) but rather a continual series of surprises constantly shocking the audience.

Two contemporary Netflix shows, the British series The Stranger and the Icelandic series The Valhalla Murders, are both “twisty” but to radically different ends. The Stranger’s “twists,” akin to coincidence, are simply the sparkplugs of an addictive plot driving the story forward for no reason other than propulsion. The Valhalla Murders, on the other hand, is made up of a series of twists akin to suspense with each taking the audience deeper into and ripping the curtain off the layers of corruption that infect Icelandic society.

Ella-Rae Smith, Brandon Fellows, and Jacob Dudman in ‘The Stranger’

The Stranger is based on a Harlan Coben novel with Coben executive producing. The catalyst for the story is the appearance at that most quintessential bourgeois parenting event, the kid’s soccer game, of a mysterious woman in a baseball cap who reveals to the father of one of the participating boys that his wife has faked a pregnancy and that his two sons may not actually be his. The show centers around lineage, with the father the wronged one in this danger to the succession of patriarchal power. The trailer can be viewed here.

This mini-series is indeed “twisty” with a new reveal coming not just at the end but generally at about every quarter of each episode. Far be it to me to reveal these plot turns, but it is important to note that at the end of a supposed calling into question of middle-class bourgeois customs, that order is restored and the sanctity of the bourgeois suburban marriage is reaffirmed even though much of the show has at least summarily questioned it. These then are addictive twists simply for their own sake or rather for the purpose of dragging viewers along with them, but with almost no interest in questioning what lies behind a trail of deception and violence.

The Valhalla Murders, on the other hand, is the complete opposite, though it begins in much the same clichéd way. That most reliable of staples, the serial killer, is the antagonist in this drama about two Icelandic police officers tracking a bloody trail that leads to a now boarded-up boarding school as the former instructors in the school are being gutted and the police have no clue why. The series is based on the first serial killer case in Iceland, and the first half of the series treads familiar Silence of the Lambs ground.

However, the serial killer plot is surprisingly resolved at the midpoint in the series and at this point, it becomes much more interesting as the two cops investigate other possible roots of the violence of the boarding school and as the trail climbs ever higher in the judicial and state hierarchy. Valhalla in Nordic mythology is a warrior’s heaven ruled over by Odin, wise but also a vicious warlike figure associated with death and the gallows. The boarding house is a Valhalla where its young warriors are initiated into an unfair battle that has ruined their lives and made living corpses of them as they die prematurely or wander aimlessly in jobs that simply occupy their time. They are casualties of a brutal abuse of power.

The twists in The Valhalla Murders each deepen the critique of a society that is willing to look at its flaws. The twists in The Stranger conceal the flaws of a society that flaunts its evils not for the purpose of examining them but simply as a part of a preoccupying, ever spinning addictive spiral that is partly designed to refute reflection.


CONTRIBUTOR

Dennis Broe
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe is a television, film, and culture critic. His criticism appears in Morning Star, People’s World, Culture Mattersand Crime Fiction Lover, and is broadcast on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the U.S., and on Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris. His books include Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure and his detective novel Left of Eden about the Hollywood Blacklist. Broe taught in the Master’s Program in Film and Television Studies at the Sorbonne, Paris.

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