Tuesday, April 10, 2018

REVIEW: 'In Contempt' - Gwen Fights Passionately for Her Client While Being Tempted by Charlie in 'Welcome to Hell'

BET's In Contempt - Episode 1.01 "Welcome to Hell"

Gwen defends a client accused of attempted rape. Charlie supervises rookie attorney, Vanessa. Tracy goes toe-to-toe with a judge.

I became such a fan of Erica Ash during her time on Starz's Survivor's Remorse. Across those four seasons, it became an ensemble show that knew how to utilize every performer to the best of their abilities. By the end of its run, it was proving that its entire cast was equally skilled at comedy and drama. Ash's character had such a moving and poignant story across the last two seasons. And yes, I'm still very annoyed and frustrated that Starz opted to end that show unexpectedly without giving it a proper ending. It's a rarity in a business that is allowing more and more shows to end when they want to. Of course, it also freed up the cast to appear in new shows. Every single one of them deserved to topline their own series. And yes, many of them have already booked new leads in the broadcast development season this year. Erica Ash just happens to be the first one to bounce back with a new show. It was quite a quick turnaround too. The Survivor's Remorse cancellation news happened and the pickup of In Contempt was just a few days later. It was a whirlwind of emotions. And yet, I was very happy that Ash was given the opportunity to lead her own show and prove to even more people that she is a star. In Contempt also comes at a time of reinvention for BET as it's doubling down on its scripted programming and being a little more cutthroat with which series will make the renewal cut. It may be an awkward time for this show to debut. Or it could become a significant component of the cable channel's new lineup.

BET is looking for broad hits right now. They see other cable networks and streaming services being able to attract the African-American audience better than they can. They have the research that says African-American viewers are sticking with cable shows more than any other demographic. It makes them a prime audience to be targeted. It's the precise mission statement for BET. They've done many scripted series in the past few years. Of course, there haven't been many breakout performers. Usually, the network only does well when it comes to miniseries events. The New Edition Story was a huge success that quickly triggered the order of a second miniseries focusing on Bobby Brown's solo career. And yet, BET wasn't able to transition that success to new shows like Rebel, Tales or The Comedy Get Down. The reality shows haven't had much luck either. Even this week, BET announced that The Quad was ending just after it wrapped its second season. In Contempt is replacing it in the Tuesday night time slot. The channel isn't making any significant changes to the way that it's releasing these shows. It's still airing them on a very competitive night. That may be a reason for why they aren't attracting a broader audience. Or maybe they are going unnoticed because none of them have been a bold reinvention of the formula that demands to be taken seriously by both critics and viewers alike.

In Contempt is a perfectly fine and accessible legal procedural. It has a captivating focus on public defenders and how overwhelming that job is in the current system. It's perfectly fine showing the corruption of this world and how it's an uphill battle that disproportionately affects African-Americans. And yet, this is the job that Gwen Sullivan enjoys doing. She doesn't want to work for a big firm in the corporate world. Yes, it would pay better. She's constantly getting that pitch from her father while meeting him at his country club. But she would much rather make her own mark on the world. It's such a relatable character. She is very passionate about her clients. Of course, that leads to a lot of expositional dialogue where other characters are telling her that she cares too much and that passion could ultimately affect her health. It's all done in a very heavy-handed way too. It makes it so that Gwen is the only character of real substance throughout this episode. That's perfectly fine as well. Again, Erica Ash can be the lead of the show. That alone would be enough for me to sample a couple of episodes. I don't know if In Contempt is a show that demands episodic reviews or just occasional check-ins. But it's definitely interesting to see what will happen next. Again, the stories and structure are familiar. Gwen is juggling cases and trying to do what's best for her clients. She has a complicated sexual dynamic with a co-worker. She ruffles feathers. But at least it's exciting watching Ash do those things.

In "Welcome to Hell," Gwen represents a man accused of raping a college student. He denies the charges. But he was wearing the exact same outfit she detailed to the police and was found with her locket in his pocket. It's an uphill battle to defend him. It's a case of Gwen needing to be the star of the show while still servicing the needs of her client. He wants to take the stand to plead his innocence. She knows that's a bad idea and needs to shoot him down while still being seen as his trustworthy and capable attorney. She wants to be liked by her clients. She's not solely focused on winning. She's determined to get the best outcome for her client. She wants to understand them in order to best represent them. It's clear that she has formed friendships with so many people in this world. She knows everyone by name at court. It's that kind of personal connection that makes her feel free to just say anything. The judge in this case basically treats the attorneys as children. She doesn't like how much they are complaining about what the other side is doing. It's just too many antics for her to stomach. She wants to be respected in her courtroom. And so, there's the inevitable moment where Gwen is held in contempt of court because of an outburst. She's speaking passionately about the broken system and how it has changed her client's entire life. But it's also just an on-the-nose bit to show that the show is very aware of what it is called and playing into that in the actual story. It's not just a legal jargon that won't actually mean anything. It's something that has consequences for Gwen as she's held in handcuffs a number of times throughout this premiere.

But of course, Gwen is successfully able to get her client acquitted. She does so first by getting the locket removed from the record. Yes, it was such a damaging piece of evidence that made him look guilty. But Gwen is able to argue that there was no reasonable threat to the officer's life for him to look inside the pocket. She also argues that the victim may have been in too emotional of a state to properly identify her attacker. Yes, that's potentially very horrifying and verges into victim-bashing territory. And yet, Gwen is still sympathetic to the victim. She feels her pain of what she has gone through and doesn't want to be seen as judging her for getting pregnant by her boyfriend who wanted to break up with her the same night. Of course, that line of questioning doesn't ultimately help her case. Nor does the reveal that there was another suspect who was picked up that night and let go because the police already had confirmation that Gwen's client was the attacker. As such, it seems clear that the show is giving the audience reasonable doubt to accept that this guy didn't commit this crime. But he is only found not guilty by the judge once Gwen makes a huge display in the courtroom about the victim not even being able to describe her attacker's face to a sketch artist. She has had ample opportunity to look her attacker in the face and make him pay for what he did to her. She claimed that she would never be able to forget the face of her attacker. But in this moment, it's clear that all she really remembers was that he was black. That was the only thing that distinguished him both in the moment and throughout this entire trial. That's a horrifying reveal that Gwen plays effectively in order to get her client released. It's a perfectly fine main story with lots of twists and turns. It sets a solid formula for the show moving forward.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Welcome to Hell" was written by Terri Kopp and directed by Farhad Mann.
  • It must be pointed out that Gwen is the only character worth caring about at this point but not all of her stories are immediately captivating. It seems like she is thrust into this awkward sexual dynamic simply because the show needs to show some skin and bring some heat to the proceedings. It definitely feels like a network note instead of something that is of genuine interest to Gwen.
  • The show keeps over-explaining how complicated Gwen and Charlie's dynamic is as well. They dated in the past and it did not go well. But he keeps worming his way into her life fully expecting them to have sex again. That's basically all that he is interested in here and it's not appealing in the slightest. Gwen says she won't fall into this trap but she inevitably does because that's the way these stories typically work.
  • The show is also trying to be very scandalous in a subplot where Gwen's co-worker and roommate, Tracy, is sleeping with one of the judges they regularly appear in front of. It's really annoying because it just seems so icky with dialogue that no rational person would say. There's just no reason for anyone to possibly get invested in the two of them as they sort out their professional and personal dynamics.
  • There's also the fact that Tracy has a really thick Southern accent. It stands out more than any of the other characters and their vocal cadences. It makes her seem out-of-place in this world. It paints her as the blonde bimbo using her sexuality to her advantage. That's not an original character at all. There's potential though because she and Gwen are friends. She's the one cautioning Gwen not to sleep with Charlie again because she won't help with the problematic aftermath.
  • Finally, there is a newcomer to the public defenders office. It's Vanessa who is doing this work for a year because her corporate firm will then give her a significant raise and benefits. It's a deal that this office has seen before. It's a wealthy individual not knowing how to react in this fast and grimy system. She is mostly just a character type here with no real nuance. She does have one conversation with Gwen about the reality of this job. But it mostly highlights Gwen and her struggle rather than offering anything more to Vanessa.