In “For Life,” which is loosely inspired by the story of a former New Jersey inmate, Isaac Wright Jr., Steinberg doesn’t shirk the familiar images and situations of the jailhouse story. We get the rushed phone calls, the stare-downs in the yard, the tense and cramped conversations in the visiting room.
They’re handled with restraint and finesse, though. And the big moments of inspiration and melodrama — the courtroom victories and family rapprochements that are unavoidable in this story, from this source — are also more subtle than the network norm. (It’s noticeable, too, that Steinberg chose to start the action after the central character, Aaron Wallace, had already spent years getting his law degree and winning the right to argue for other prisoners in court, forgoing all that ready-made poignancy.)
Some of that nuance is down to Steinberg, who wrote the first three episodes, and to sure-handed direction from George Tillman Jr. and Russell Fine. But a lot of it has to do with casting, beginning with the steady, measured performance of Nicholas Pinnock as Wallace, who’s nine years into a life sentence after being framed for a drug crime.
As good or better in a smaller role is another excellent British performer, Indira Varma, who plays Safiya Masry, the enlightened warden of the prison where Wallace is housed. Masry is Wallace’s ally but his double-pronged strategy, in which he uses the cases of other prisoners as part of a long-term campaign to free himself, often threatens her own position. Without any histrionics or posturing, Varma nails the character’s blend of idealism and realpolitik, compassion and trepidation.
One interesting thing about “For Life,” at this early stage, is how it takes a story grounded in race — Wallace, an African-American, is railroaded by a white district attorney, Glen Maskins (Boris McGiver, whose ability to combine menace and condescension is perfectly used) — and then crosses it up. Wallace’s need to cooperate, and coexist, with representatives of the prison and legal systems puts him in precarious situations, and reveals how loyalties can run deeper along institutional lines than racial ones.