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Chicago-made TV series ‘Proven Innocent’ presents city ‘in all its glory’

Russell Hornsby (left) and Rachelle Lefevre play partners in a Chicago law firm specializing in reversing wrongful convictions on "Proven Innocent."

Russell Hornsby (left) and Rachelle Lefevre play partners in a Chicago law firm specializing in reversing wrongful convictions on "Proven Innocent." | Fox

Chicago is the setting for Fox’s new drama series played out against a backdrop of corrupt local politicians, abuse of powers and a flawed legal system.

The legal drama “Proven Innocent,” premiering at 8 p.m. Friday on WFLD-Channel 32, will focus on the topic of wrongful convictions. Inspired by the work of real-life nonprofit organization Innocence Project, it has an executive producer familiar with our city: Danny Strong, a California native who is also co-creator of Fox’s locally made hit series “Empire.”

Lawyer Madeline Scott (Rachelle Lefevre) heads an underdog legal firm focused on wrongful conviction cases. It’s a cause close to her heart after serving 10 years in prison (along with her brother) for the teenage murder of her best friend, a crime she did not commit

Her antagonist is powerful and corrupt Cook County State’s Attorney Gore Bellows (Kelsey Grammer, last seen in Chicago as the ruthless mayor on Starz’ “Boss”), whose moral absolutist views condone the dubious means with which he attains justice.

Bellows prosecuted Madeline Scott and her brother, Levi (Riley Smith), and still believes they are guilty. He would rather let sleeping dogs lie when it comes to new evidence in the convictions he’s won over the years. Using his clout, back-door maneuverings and distorted media coverage that skews towards the sensational, he hopes to thwart attempts to tarnish his record and political aspirations of becoming attorney general.

On "Proven Innocent," Kelsey Grammer plays the corrupt Cook County state's attorney with aspirations of becoming the attorney general.

On “Proven Innocent,” Kelsey Grammer plays the corrupt Cook County state’s attorney with aspirations of becoming the attorney general. | Fox

Unlike “Empire,” which is shot in Chicago but set in New York, “Proven Innocent” was an opportunity for crews to “shoot the city for all its glory,” Strong said.

“I love the look of the city. I love the architecture of the city. I think visually it’s really a terrific-looking town,” said Strong. “It’s really dynamic. You’ve got all sorts of different neighborhoods that have completely different feels, which is great to do a show like this because not every episode takes place in Chicago. Our characters take cases outside of the state at times. It’s nice to be able to double as other cities because there’s so much diversity in how the city looks.”

Was Chicago inspirational beyond just the aesthetics?

“With what’s been happening in the city in the last year and with our show, I can understand if people from Chicago are feeling it, you know, I don’t know, very personally. But I think wrongful conviction is not just Chicago — it’s the whole country and I think it’s an issue that anyone can feel compassionate about,” said Strong. “There’s something universal about it.”

Strong is passionate about “infusing social justice elements” into his projects. “Season 1 [of ‘Empire’] was really designed around homophobia,” he said. “That was a central concept of the season and all the dynamics [of the characters] in a very upfront and blatant way.

“A lot of people shy away from this stuff because they think audiences don’t want to be preached to, but I don’t think that it’s preachy. I think it makes it a better drama and it’s more engaging and more powerful. If you write it preachy, it’s going to be bad, you know, but if you make it entertaining and exciting and give it depth it can be pretty great.”

Each “Proven Innocent” episode will deal with resolving a wrongful conviction case, sometimes directly ripped from or inspired by the headlines.

Danny Strong ("Empire") is an executive producer of "Proven Innocent."

Danny Strong (“Empire”) is an executive producer of “Proven Innocent.” | Lisa O’Connor/AFP/Getty Images

“At times it will be a real case. … And then we will take that case and change it because we’re not doing true stories, but certainly cases will inspire episodes. And then sometimes it’s the subject matter — ongoing, certain types of cases that keep recurring,” said Strong. Those could involve shaken baby syndrome or defendants from discriminated groups of people.

So will we ever know who really killed Madeline’s friend, Rosemary Lynch?

Strong promises that by end of the first season, we will. Throughout the season, flashbacks reveal more about Madeline’s past as she continues to look for the real killer while working to free innocent defendants.

“Combining a weekly procedural with this ongoing murder mystery, combined with our soap and our political drama, feels like we’ve created something just fresh and unique, with that case at the heart of it,” said Strong.

“That’s part of the fun of the show. We didn’t want it to just be these sad, emotional wrongful conviction cases. We wanted to intertwine it with this really cool, intriguing murder mystery,” said Strong. “Who really did kill her best friend? Why did she have to go to prison for 10 years? What really did happen? Combining these two genres of legal drama and murder mystery we thought would be a really cool television show. We hope.”