Though Peter Nowalk created and runs ABC’s new How To Get Away With Murder, the legal thriller contains unmistakable strands of executive producer Shonda Rhimes’ DNA. The pilot is stylistically and narratively ambitious, clipping along at a thousand miles a minute. Between the starpower of its lead Viola Davis and the backing of the Shondaland empire, Murder can hardly enter the fall television battlefield quietly. And in fact, it holds nothing back.
But while Rhimes’ involvement in the project means a built-in audience and almost guaranteed longevity for How To Get Away With Murder (Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal are ratings champions across most demographics), it also means the show has already had to face the enormous pressures and assumptions tacked onto every Shondaland project.
Because beyond just the story and stylistic similarities to previous Rhimes work—Scandal in particular—Murder also upholds the Shondaland tradition of a diverse cast. But Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and now How To Get Away With Murder don’t employ actors of color for the sake of checking off boxes; they provide these actors with meaningful, real, multidimensional roles that can’t be collapsed into racialized stereotypes (though New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley tried desperately hard to do so).
Because of respectability politics, audiences will often hold characters of color—and black women in particular—to different standards. Rutina Wesley’s Tara on True Blood was hated fiercely by fans for her flaws despite not being any worse than any of the other characters on the show (in fact, Tara, for me, was one of the only heroic characters that show had). Kat Graham’s Bonnie Bennett has similarly been scrutinized for “bad choices” by fans of The Vampire Diaries. Meanwhile, Elena Gilbert gets to pretty much do whatever she wants without losing her hero status.
When critics talk of the great “antiheroes” of TV drama right now, they mention the Walts, the Dons, and the Rusts. But what about Olivia Pope? White men on television, of course, get to be morally questionable, and people will love it. Black women on television are expected to be role models, to “represent” the race in a positive light. Black women on television are allowed to be heroes, but not in a way that threatens whiteness. They are allowed to be strong, but not overpowering; smart, but not arrogant. They’re expected to be independent but also team players.
At the forefront of How To Get Away With Murder is Annalise Keating (Davis, whose performance is unquestionably the best part of this pilot). Annalise, much like Olivia Pope, flies in the face of all that bullshit. She’s a tough-as-nails criminal defense attorney and law professor whose students, rightfully, both fear and admire her. She cheats in court and cheats on her husband with a hunky detective. She’s a real human woman with real human flaws.
“I want to be her,” Michaela Pratt (Aja Naomi King) says when Annalise and her team literally slow-motion strut out of court after winning yet another case. Annalise certainly isn’t “likable,” but that’s because the characters of How To Get Away With Murder transcend the silly likable/unlikeable dichotomy. And at the end of the day, you do want to be her. Not because she fits the mold as your typical “role model.” But because she’s awesome. And characters of color don’t usually get to be awesome. They’re often too tied up in tokenizing goals on the writers’ parts or racist expectations from viewers or respectability policing from both sides of this equation to just be. Let alone just be awesome.
While Annalise is certainly Murder’s superstar, there are a lot of other characters introduced in this pilot. Too many, almost, so that it’s hard to really to sink your teeth too deeply into any of them besides Annalise. Even Wes Gibbins (Alfred Enoch), who’s given as much screen time as the professor, doesn’t feel fully realized quite yet. But while the students—who we find frantically burying a body in the very first scene—seem, at first, to fit nicely into predetermined stock types, each hints at having a lot more to offer.
Resident “good girl” Michaela, for example, initially wants nothing to do with the murder coverup the students find themselves in. But she too quickly breaks out of her “type” and dips into moral gray when they find themselves in a sticky situation. “Where the hell was that girl all night?” another student asks when Michaela expertly lies to a police officer to bail them out. That girl was there the whole time. Because these writers understand that characters of color shouldn’t have to just be one thing.
Story-wise, there’s a whole lot going on. The pilot builds a solid but volatile foundation: We bounce between present day and four months prior, entering every jump back in time through the perspective of a different member of the student group we find burying a body in the very first scene. It’s a narrative device that’s cool in theory but ends up messily executed, especially because here are three separate murders dealt with in the pilot, and none seems to have anything to do with one another other than relating in some way to Annalise—either professionally or personally.
It’s a heck of a lot to juggle, and Murder doesn’t quite lose control entirely, but it certainly fumbles. It’s burning through so much story story at lightning speed, and while that’s certainly something that can work (The Vampire Diaries did it exceptionally well in its earlier seasons), it’s also what started to make Scandal feel like it was heading down a path of self-destruction midway through last season.
It’s ambitious, for sure, to pack so much meat into a pilot. And part of what rescues How To Get Away With Murder from collapsing under the weight of its narrative is that it’s fun to watch. In that way, it reminds me a little of a more over-the-top Good Wife, which can be a Serious Drama when it needs to be but also doesn’t forget to be downright enjoyable. The writing, however, isn’t quite as tight as that of The Good Wife. Not yet, at least. But as a hybrid case-of-the-week procedural and serialized legal thriller, Murder similarly doesn’t fit into a single genre. And that refusal to categorize and box up is what makes this one of the best drama pilots this fall.
- In my mind, How To Get Away With Murder and Gilmore Girls take place in the same universe, and Liza Weil is actually just playing Paris Geller, who chose law school instead of med school and changed her name to Bonnie Winterbottom after some sort of identity crisis. Let me have this.
- I stood and clapped when Davis delivered the titular line. Mostly for her delivery. But also for that red leather jacket.
- In my notes, I kept referring to Annalise’s husband as her “flop white husband,” and I think my point about him being super basic and unmemorable is confirmed by the show handholding us through that final reveal with flashbacks that basically screamed “in case you’re confused, this white guy is that white guy.”
- What’s up with this haunted vintage murder house apartment Wes lives in?
- I found out the hard way that you have to watch this show very carefully. It’s one of the fastest moving pilots I’ve seen in a while.
- Hi, everyone! I’m super excited to be covering one-third of ABC’s Shonda Thursdays (that’s what we’re officially calling them, right?). I finally have an excuse to write the word “murder” 15 times in one review!