No longer content to be known as the “Bridezillas” channel, WEtv is making a strong entry into the scripted content arena with “The Divide,” a suspenseful drama that deftly balances issues of race, class, and wrongful incarceration in modern day Philadelphia.
Anchored by a solid ensemble cast that includes Nia Long, Damon Gupton, Paul Schneider, and Marin Ireland, the eight-episode series, which premieres 9pm Wednesday on WEtv, does not soften its approach to the complexities surrounding the personal and public politics of exonerating the wrongfully accused.
As the series opens, we see the passionate efforts of Christine Rose (Marin Ireland), a caseworker with an agency that works on behalf of the wrongfully convicted (based on the work done by The Innocence Project). Christine pushes to re-open a 12-year-old case that nearly pushed the city to the brink of racial unrest, because in her point of view, something doesn’t add up.
Considering that the case involves two white construction workers found guilty of murdering a rich African American family, leaving only their youngest child alive, many in the city would rather let the convictions stand. But the impending execution of one of the incarcerated men, Jared Bankowski (Chris Bauer), adds a level of urgency to Christine’s actions, and soon emotions are running high again
In her efforts to secure a stay of execution for Bankowski, Christine opens a number of old wounds that threaten her career and that of her boss, Clark (Schneider), not to mention her personal safety.
Christine’s actions also deeply affect the lives of a family she doesn’t even know, headed by District Attorney Adam Page (Gupton), the man who built his career on the controversial case, and his wife Billie (Long), a successful corporate attorney.
Although “The Divide” sets the table as a powerful character study, and its cast ably dives into the story’s intensity, it also cleverly hints at how interconnected these apparently disparate parts of the community are.
Written by Richard LaGravenese and co-created by Tony Goldwyn , who directed the two-hour series premiere, “The Divide” was originally a project under consideration for AMC before migrating to its sister channel WEtv – a fortunate turn of events for the drama. On WEtv, “The Divide” does not have to compete with any other big brand titles on the network marquee.
Now that “The Divide” is starting to get the attention of viewers, it’s a safe bet that Ireland will as well; “The Divide” represents her first lead role in a network series. We sat down with Ireland at the Television Critics Association’s Summer Press Tour to talk to her about the series.
This is your first starring role in a series, right?
You play Christine, who is an interesting character. There’s a lot of toughness in her, as well as fragility. But at the same time, a little bit of humor shines through. How does she evolve as the season moves forward?
Without giving too much away, what I’ll say is that there are some very big expectations that she has that really get dashed. She has to change her plan a few times, and I think that she’s the kind of person who is always trying to be in control of everything. … So a few things have to go wrong with that plan for her to learn. Some things have to colossally fail that only she is responsible for. Some plans that she has about her personal life have to fail before she can understand that she’s not the one who can control what’s going on with her life, either. … Her whole thing is, “I can do it. Just leave me alone and I can do it perfectly.”
There are a lot of people in this world like that.
Right? She’s also very afraid of intimacy, which is why it’s nice to me whenever we see her alone … She’s sort of this, like, kid. This is not a girl who was raised by normal parents. She was raised by wolves. So she does things that you don’t quite do if you were raised by adults who care about you. … And that’s the badge she carries out in front of her. But that’s such an immature feeling in the world. I look forward to people seeing that, over the season, things happen to her that are out of her control. And she has to learn how to deal with those things, and learn that sometimes trying to grab it tighter isn’t the solution.
How much did you know about organizations like The Innocence Project, which your character’s work is based upon?
Before I started, I only knew what I saw from Conviction, from Tony’s movie. Then, for our pilot two years ago, I watched this documentary After Innocence, and then I read the book Actual Innocence. Then Paul and I met for a day at the Innocence Project and talked to everybody there, all the interns and all the lawyers. Then, when we went back to shoot the series, I was an intern at the Innocence Project for four to six weeks.
I was working closely with this one lawyer… who was great. I was working with him on one case in particular and a couple of smaller cases as they came up. I learned a lot about the kind of day-to-day aspects … and the thing that was really special about it is that when something amazing happens, a cheer goes up. Everybody starts cheering.
… I do remember that one of the interns, when I was getting really overwhelmed emotionally, just from reading trial transcripts about the crimes that happened, she said, “Oh yeah, in your first two weeks you gotta take a lot of walks around the block.” Because you can’t really bring it home and talk to your family and friends … It was a special place to learn about.
This is such an interesting show for WEtv. To do a show about race, class, and the growing socioeconomic divide in a large city is a really bold choice for a first scripted series.
And I think that is the most thrilling thing about this move over to WEtv. When [the pilot] was with AMC, and they were looking for something to bring WE into the world of AMC and Sundance…the great Cheryl Bloch, the VP of Scripted, she fell in love with this show. She felt it was perfect, because they didn’t want it to feel like “Bridezillas”. They wanted it to be taken seriously. … And to be the first one, it is a big risky move that excites me, and I support that. Tony in particular was really excited because being the first has a great energy behind it, in terms of the way that we’ll be treated by the network.
It’s been a journey, from when we shot the pilot for AMC two years ago. But the cast is so strong, and we’ve all become so close as a result. And Richie and Tony are these pillars for us.
Were the any films or TV shows that you were watching that influenced your performance in “The Divide”?
Oh, there were big ones. One was The Central Park Five documentary, which was major…and again, After Innocence was huge, I re-watched that. But while I was doing the show, I binged like crazy on “Damages,” which I had never seen. When it was airing was the time when I didn’t have these bingeing capabilities that we do now…I remember watching it and saying, “This is so great, because you’ve got these strong women.”
That one is much more obviously a legal show, but there are also so many out-of-the-box ways of doing things. It also has that thriller aspect without being too over the top… so that was kind of fun.
…Also, I watched “Nurse Jackie”. I was so fascinated by thinking about… the beginning of this whole wave of television. I was watching a lot of the beginnings of shows, those big shows that started it all, “The Sopranos,” and “Six Feet Under”, I was watching a lot of those. Because, frankly, I’ve done arcs on things, but to be in on the ground level, I was having conversations with Richie and Tony about what it’s like to make something. I was reading that book Difficult Men that came out a year or two ago, about David Milch, and Matthew Weiner, and Vince Gilligan. I was interested finding out about how these things happened. And then I was dying to watch more Edie Falco, just watching how she was able to maintain such an anti-hero female character. How do you maintain that? So that was my version of on-the-job training.