Season 1 | Episodes 1 & 2 | “The Way Men Divide” & “No Such Thing as Justice” | Aired July 16, 2014
When everyone from A&E to WGN America, not to mention the Amazons and Neflixes of the world, is throwing their hat in the ring of scripted programming, it was only a matter of time before WE tv did the same. Methinks The Weather Channel is next—Twister: The Series, anyone?
Judging from the first two episodes of The Divide, which debuted together, I’d say the channel that is home to such reality programming as Mystery Millionaire and Marriage Bootcamp—as well as copious amounts of Will & Grace and Law & Order reruns—hardly wants to reinvent the wheel. Using as its hook the age-old story of saving a (possibly innocent) man from death row in a race against time, WE tv’s inaugural launch into scripted fare is a rehash of a plot device that movies and books have used as a trigger for conflict many times before. We’ve seen it everywhere from John Grisham’s The Chamber to the awful The Life of David Gale, with an overwrought Kevin Spacey performance and a ridiculous twist ending to match.
Yet despite this, The Divide got me in its grasp. Television is all about characters, and The Divide presents us with a group who find themselves in a pressure-cooker situation with moral and ethical implications.
When we first meet Christina Rosa (Marin Ireland), she is reading Nietzsche while tending bar. We soon find out that’s merely her day job, as she also is an Innocence Initiative caseworker currently infatuated with a death-row case involving one Jared Bankowski (Chris Bauer). He was sentenced to death for killing—with accomplice Terry Kucik (Joe Anderson)—the Butler family (Kucik was underage and had no record, so was given the lighter life sentence).
After stumbling across evidence photos of Bankowski, Rosa becomes convinced of his innocence—one of the victims had a bloodied hand that would suggest that Bankowski was attacked, yet he had nary a scratch on him. Rosa’s quest to prove Bankowski’s innocence proves to be quite the uphill battle, as everyone from the Governor, to her superior Clark Rylance (Paul Schneider from Parks and Recreation), to overly ambitious District Attorney Adam Page (Damon Gupton, who played the mayor on Fox’s short-lived Rake) wants nothing to do with the seemingly open-and-shut-case. Even Bankowski himself seems over it all, refusing to give a DNA sample.
The Divide was originally slated for AMC, but was bumped to its sister station after being passed on. It comes from Tony Goldwyn—that’s Scandal‘s President Fitzgerald to all you readers out there—who directed the pilot and serves as an executive producer. The series was written by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (John Tinker serves as showrunner). Both Goldwyn (whose last feature film as a director, Conviction, also dealt with a man wrongfully convicted for murder) and LaGravanese are talents who are more interested in exploring what is under the surface when it comes these characters. And that is exactly The Divide‘s M.O. (its tagline is “Everyone is guilty of something,” after all).
As played by Ireland, a journeyman actress who’s had good arcs on Starz’s Kelsey Grammer-starring Boss and Showtime’s Homeland, but could easily be mistaken for Elizabeth Moss (or Taylor Schilling or Teri Polo), Rosa is cut from the same plucky, wet-behind-the ears, crusading reporter we know so well from many movies and television shows. But there are many layers to her character as well, including a personal attachment to the Bankowski case (her father is currently serving time for a crime he allegedly didn’t commit). Although she drinks and sleeps around with a cop (Adam Rothenberg, the sole weak link), Rosa is one with a tough exterior that hides many, many scars. This could be the role that finally gives Ireland her due.
It always boggles the mind when a single TV show gets stacked with so much on-camera talent, and The Divide continues that trend. Aside from the aforementioned Schneider and Gupton, we also have Nia Long as Page’s equally ambitious wife, Billie; Ann Dowd as Bankowski’s mother, giving Margo Martindale a run for her money in terms of scene-stealing; Clark Peters, so good on Person of Interest and equally good here as Page’s police commissioner father who also is tied to the case; and John Bedford Lloyd as Rosa’s dad. It’s top-notch work all around.
Another plus of the show is the way it deals with class divides and the seamless way race is intertwined. Rosa, who is white, is lower middle class, while the Pages, who are black, are part of the elite. The Butlers, who were black, were killed in an affluent white neighborhood, and two white males, one with neo-Nazi ties, were convicted for the crime. Setting all this in Philadelphia—the “City of Brotherly Love”—is yet another nice touch.
I think the best thing about the first two episodes of The Divide is in the way it sets up relationships—between Rosa and Rylance; Page and his wife; Page and his father; Page and Jenny Butler (Britne Oldford), the only surviving member and sole eyewitness to the family massacre; and best of all, Bankowski and his mother (Bauer and Dowd knock it out of the park in their one scene together). I was surprised at the direction the second episode took and the way the rest of the season seems to be set up. It’s going to be a long journey, but one I’m willing to take. For a network taking its first shot at scripted programming, there are worse ways to make an impression.
Welcome to the club, WE tv.
The Divide airs Wednesdays at 9/8C on WE tv.