NEW YORK — Tony Goldwyn has displayed a lack of ethics in the White House.
As President Fitzgerald Grant on ABC's hit melodrama "Scandal," he has cheated on his wife right under her nose and even smothered a pesky Supreme Court justice on her sickbed.
But in his behind-the-camera roles as producer, director and writer, Goldwyn is exposing the ethical minefields of the justice system in a fine new drama "The Divide."
This eight-episode series, which premieres on WE tv on Wednesday (9 p.m. EDT), teams Goldwyn with fellow creator and producer Richard LaGravenese (writer of last year's HBO film "Behind the Candelabra"), who penned the two-hour debut.
Inspired by the real-life Innocence Project (which works to exonerate wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing), "The Divide" focuses on a young Philadelphia lawyer named Christina Rosa, who has joined the Innocence Initiative and become obsessed with winning a last-ditch appeal for a white inmate soon facing execution for the murder of a black family.
As Christina (series star Marin Ireland) and her boss (Paul Schneider) probe inconsistencies in the case, they butt heads with the city's charismatic African-American district attorney (Damon Gupton), even as he begins to acknowledge problems with the racially charged verdict, which vaulted him to prominence a dozen years ago but, if it came apart now, could be his undoing.
"In the past," Goldwyn says, "I had assumed that if someone's in prison, they probably did it. I didn't realize how much gray area there is in our justice system, and how many cracks catch people without money and influence."
"On the show, we try to come to terms with the ambiguity of human nature," adds LaGravenese. "In the Writers Room, I said, 'Let's get rid of words like "good" and "bad." That's not what our show is about."
The two first worked together when LaGravenese did a script rewrite for the Goldwyn-directed 2010 film "Conviction," which starred Hilary Swank in a dramatization of an actual Innocence Project case.
When that was done, says Goldwyn, "I wanted to explore the Innocence Project further. I thought a TV series would be a great way."
After months of hashing out ideas, then crafting a proposal for the series they conceived, they landed a deal with the corporate parent of AMC to film a pilot. Time passed. Then so did AMC on the series. But a sister network, WE tv, stepped up.
WE tv, in the midst of a network-wide rebranding, claimed "The Divide" as its first-ever scripted series — a hoped-for repeat of how, in 2007, a new drama called "Mad Men" heralded the revamping of AMC.
Goldwyn and LaGravenese went back to work to beef up the narrative in preparation for adding and reshooting scenes for the pilot.
Goldwyn had landed the original deal for "The Divide" before committing to "Scandal," but despite those "presidential" duties (which he resumes for season four later this month), he says the show was generous in giving him freedom to develop "The Divide." And when "Scandal" took a two-month hiatus in the middle of last season, Goldwyn was able to head to Toronto, where he directed the first two episodes of "The Divide" as it sprang to life again.
Marin Ireland (whose credits include the films "I Am Legend" and "Sparrows Dance" and TV appearances on "Homeland" and "The Following") returned to Toronto after having used her "down time" wisely: Last fall, she starred in an off-Broadway play "Marie Antoinette," and for a month spent her days as an intern at the Innocence Project.
She found that entering Christina's world for real was not only instructive, but also exhilarating.
"It left me thinking I should quit acting and come to work with these people full-time — even though I barely knew how to work the fax machine," she says with a laugh.
For now, she's happy to play a passionate lawyer trying to find justice, while Goldwyn, on break from presidential mischief, presides over his saga of doing the right thing.