For Life is not an easy sell as a broadcast drama. Inspired by the life of Isaac Wright Jr., who was wrongfully convicted but got his conviction overturned while in prison and became a licensed attorney, the series’ first season was set in prison. It followed Aaron Wallace (Nicholas Pinnock) as he represents himself and his fellow inmates in court, while also exposing injustices and racial profiling in the American legal system as well as the flaws in the prison system.
The series, from creator/executive producer Hank Steinberg and executive producer Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, was a modest linear ratings performer but drew solid digital viewership, earning a Season 2 renewal in the weeks following the death of George Floyd when the themes explored in the show became part of the national conversation.
In an interview with Deadline, Steinberg and Jackson discuss For Life‘s increased timeliness and the bigger responsibility that comes with it. Steinberg talks about the difficult, emotional and sometime cathartic conversations in the show’s writers room over the last few weeks. The two share details about the upcoming second season, which will see Aaron get out of prison, how the show will incorporate COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests, and whether Jackson’s character will be back.
Going through the show’s first Emmy season, Steinberg and Jackson also address For Life‘s unique status of a premium drama on broadcast TV that defies the rules of a legal procedural, and the three characters the series’ leading man Pinnock play in each episode. Jackson also shares how he was personally affected by Floyd’s death and the mass protests that it ignited.
DEADLINE: At a February event, series co-star Joy Bryant called For Life the right show at the time. How do you feel about the show’s timing now and about its importance being amplified by the recent events following the death of George Floyd?
CURTIS “50 CENT” JACKSON: Creatively, we couldn’t ask for a better time for anything to take place. I’d always known that For Life was at the apex of social justice – it’s one of the reasons I was so enthused about the project when I heard Isaac’s story. Now that so many more people are paying attention and dissecting these issues, we expect that audiences will be tuning in with a new perspective.
HANK STEINBERG: We’ve been talking in the writers room for a few weeks, and we feel an enormous sense of responsibility to be one of the few shows on television that’s dealing with the social justice issues that are happening in the country and is set in a contemporary time. People were already having these conversations in some ways; there was some bipartisan support for justice reform a couple years ago. Then all of a sudden, this explosion happened with the death of George Floyd, which makes the show more overtly relevant because people are now paying attention much more to the issue.
We just feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to depict whatever we’re going to show in the series in a sensitive, delicate way that is able to discuss the issues triggered by this incident and explore it from an intimate, personal, and emotional point of view through our characters and not exploit it in some way where it feels ripped from the headlines.
Half of our writers room is Black and half the writer’s room is white. We’re having some really honest, direct and difficult conversations that I think everyone in the writers room is growing from. It’s emotional. It’s sometimes cathartic. It’s very important to everybody in the room, but of course those of us in the room who are not Black are highly attuned to the sensitivities that the Black writers have. There are things that white writers can never understand about the Black experience, living in America. We wrestle with that together, and we’re trying to put in the show those strains and those blind spots and misunderstandings of people with the best of intentions still making mistakes.
We’re fortunate in that the show was naturally set about six months behind what was happening in real life. So, our intention is to have a certain portion of the (second) season exist before COVID and the eruption and then have the COVID and the rupture from the killings be a galvanizing event for the characters but in a really intimate, personal and emotional way. You will see Aaron’s daughter be somebody who wants to go march and be caught up in it and Aaron having to wrestle with it — what it means for him, what it means for his responsibilities as a lawyer and in some ways a public figure in the world of the show. It will definitely be part of shaping his character and transforming him in certain ways, and we hope that, if we do it correctly, as the audience watches the characters, they experience the before, during, and after of that galvanizing event, that we’re speaking to something larger that’s happening in the society and the culture.
DEADLINE: Will you explore COVID and the Black Lives Matter protests with Aaron in prison, or will he follow Isaac’s arc and successfully overturn his conviction and get out?
STEINBERG: We do intend to get him out of prison at some point during the season and to explore what it’s like for the character to try to re-assimilate into his old live, to reclaim his family and to try to establish himself in society. That’s the best way of us to tackle COVID and the rupture from the BLM explosion; it’s much better dramatically to have to tackle that from outside the prison.
But even when Aaron gets out of prison, he’ll always feel that he owes a debt to the guys that he left behind. So he’ll be existing in the world where he’s trying to get his life back and try to figure out how to recover from over nine years of being institutionalized, and then also try to balance that against the debts that he feels he owes to the guys that he left behind.
DEADLINE: There have been a number of series, mostly broadcast police procedurals, that have come out and said that they will change their mostly heroic portrayal of the police that largely ignores police brutality following the death of George Floyd. For Life has been a rare show that takes an unflinching look at the justice and prison systems, so are you planning any adjustments going forward?
JACKSON: We don’t have much of an adjustment to make on that note, but the responsible way to show criminal activity is through the law-enforcement perspective initially. That’s why cop shows have been so successful for so many years. If you think about it, you show the repercussions to the person’s action. So [shows] tell it from the viewpoint of law enforcement, but people don’t necessarily want to watch that right now.
If you’re looking at social media and the things that will come through on your feed, you so often see a police officer doing something inappropriate. There’s something new every day for you to see from law enforcement, so it’s obvious that there’s a big issue, a bigger problem to address.
STEINBERG: In a lot of ways, our show exists as a flip side and a counterpoint to all of the police procedurals and legal procedurals where the DAs are the heroes. Our show deals with the families and the people who are on the other side of that system, and by making them the lead characters, you create the empathy, and that’s what storytelling does. So, when you have all these police shows on, even if the police characters are flawed — as Aaron Wallace is flawed — you’re saying, be empathic with these people, and even when they’re flawed, they’re the heroes, and the other people, the less important characters, the people they arrest, are the supporting characters in their story.
What we have is the flip side of it, where the supporting characters are the cops and the DAs and the ADAs who are prosecuting, and we’re creating empathy for the people that are affected by the system. One of the things that we will be doing this season, in addition to continuing to follow Aaron Wallace and his family, is following the stories of his allies, Safiya Masry and Henry Roswell. Those are people that are trying to change the system. We will be showing how the people who work within the system, inside the institutions, are trapped in those institutions, and the institutions are bigger than the people because they’ve been erected for so long and operated for so long in a certain way that no one individual person can, from within, overcome it.
That’s how you have characters who enter with good intentions, don’t quite know what they’re getting into, and then 10 years later, they turn around and they go, oh, I’m doing something I never even thought I would be doing when I first entered this thing. I’m just doing what my boss did, and I’m going to become the boss, and then my protégé will do what I did.
DEADLINE: Hank has extensive broadcast experience but Curtis, you come from the Power universe and premium cable. Why did you decide to do For Life on broadcast?
JACKSON: Well, it’s important that it fell into the right hands, and Hank’s involvement was what made me excited about it. In premium, the audience that’s watching is into more graphic content. Like the things that you hear — even if you’re listening to R&B music, which was once love music, and you were quite buttoned, you had to be a gentleman to be involved, and now they’re saying the same things that a rap artist would say. The things that you hear in rap music, they just have shock value or extreme. In the context of television, Hank was initially saying we can’t say certain things, but we can do everything.
There was a way to make a premium show on network television that is the closest thing to a premium project that they got on television right now. Even the amount of episodes, the 10-13 episode format, it’s not 22 episodes of it a season because if we want it to be great, we can condense it and have those real moments happen like that. If are doing 22 episodes…
STEINBERG: You end up treading water and jumping the shark when you have to do that many episodes. Plus, then I don’t get to see my kids, so.
JACKSON: And the actors don’t get a chance to be a part of a film project that’s…
STEINBERG: The 13-episode thing is fantastic, and it’s the right way and number to tell a compelling serialized story.
DEADLINE: When For Life was originally announced as a show for ABC, the network of The Practice, many, including me, assumed that Isaac’s story will be the engine in the pilot leading to quick flash-forward to Aaron working a case of the week at a law firm. That did not happen. Was there any pressure to turn the show into a classic procedural?
JACKSON: It won’t be what you’ve seen in the past. Aaron’s character is special because he’s developed under circumstances where he feels like the system itself is wrong, so it will never share the same viewpoint as any of those other guys who you will see leading those procedural shows. So, in the event it does reach that point, it still won’t be the same show.
STEINBERG: That’s right. Even when he takes a case and the case, in that particular week, is the most important aspect of it, because of the nature of his character and what he’s trying to accomplish, it should hopefully always feel different. The overall goal is to create a similar kind of balance to what we had this season where he’s a lawyer, he’s got cases, and he’s fighting for things, and it’s also a family drama, and it also will continue to be a drama about the politics of the institutions, and it has lots of serialized elements.
By virtue of the fact that he’s a lawyer, he has cases, and so there’s a procedural element to it. But we really try to come at the cases in an emotional point of view and a psychological point of view instead of twisting ourselves into pretzels about crazy legal high jinks because we’re trying to address the inequities of the law and the weird kind of sometimes perverse ways that the actual law is carried out and shine a light on that as opposed to showing the incredibly brilliant and dazzling moves that Aaron Wallace does this week, because he’s the greatest lawyer ever invented to get his client out.
ABC has been really, really, really supportive about the vision of the show, and they recognize that just creating another closed-ended procedural with a character who happens to be different is not going to be interesting enough or add enough new to the airwaves, with hundreds of shows on TV and the competition, and I have not felt that pressure to do anything to make it more conventional. [ABC Entertainment president] Karey Burke in particular has been an enormous champion.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about the unconventional broadcast legal drama’s unconventional lead character, Aaron. How did Nicholas get cast and what did he bring to the role?
JACKSON: I knew that Nicholas was the right guy for the part the moment we all met him. Sometimes you just know, ya know?! And he brings such an intensity to every scene. Watching him as Aaron you’re witnessing a man who is literally caged and you see the fight to get outta there in everything he does and says. Nicholas connects all those dots.
STEINBERG: Nicholas brings so much complexity and depth and he is so naturally empathic, you really feel for him and root for him.
It was also really important to feel the anger that the character has throughout; it’s always simmering and seething underneath because of the incredible injustice that has been done to him. And yet Nicholas has a way of calibrating that so that it seeps out here and there and then it explodes from time to time in certain moments where it feels appropriate.
Aaron also has so many different sides to him. That is what distinguishes the character in many ways from other “lawyer characters” on TV — he is a prisoner and has to be able to navigate his way though the world of inmates.
He has to play a different kind of role and persona when he is with a prison warden, he has to be a different person entirely with his family and try to hold onto who he was from nine years earlier.
And he has to be a completely other character when he puts on a suit and walks into a courtroom to play the role of a lawyer. It’s a new role for him — he a 44-year-old man who just learned to be a lawyer six months ago.
Nicholas is so gifted at showing different layers when he is playing a scene so you can feel that he is trying to portray confidence and bravado but underneath he is insecure and he really plays the silent moments in a way that always make those scenes compelling.
DEADLINE: Curtis, you are also an actor on the show, playing the recurring role of Cassius Dawkins. Will viewers see you next season?
JACKSON: They might see me. They may not. I’ll tell you that much. It may be exciting, it may not, but it’s going to be great, regardless. What else do you want to tell her, Hank?
STEINBERG: We left it open that Cassius Dawkins is still alive. So, we have left that open to see if and when he returns.
DEADLINE: On a final note, Curtis, you were very active on social media in the weeks following George Floyd’s death. How did his death and the mass protests against police brutality and racial injustice affect you personally? Did the events reinforce what kind of content you want to do as an artist?
JACKSON: Like everybody else I was shocked by what we all saw coming out of Minneapolis. But when you think about it, it wasn’t that surprising. I am proud to be a part of a show like For Life which shines a light on what Black males go through so often when they are being put through our problematic criminal justice system.