JEFF KASANOFF ‘15 CONTRIBUTOR
More instructive as a lesson in TV marketing than in crime, ABC's How to Get Away with Murder was a guaranteed hit before it even premiered. Created by Peter Norwalk, but made in the image of executive producer and television sensation Shonda Rhimes, the primetime soap is expertly devised to capture the Scandal audience - and keep it.
The pilot opens in media res as a group of law students attempt to cover up a murder, and then flashes back to their first day of class, in which Professor Annalise Keating (played by powerhouse Viola Davis) encourages them to throw away their books and practice real law. Professor Keating, also a working attorney, invites the students to develop a legal defense for an in progress murder trial; the best four students will be hired for her law firm.
But this description only scratches the surface. Taking a lesson from Scandal 's second and most successful season, How to Get Away with Murder ditches the basic procedural premise from the get-go, introducing a dozen or so soapy plotlines for a gigantic cast of racially and sexually diverse, if uniformly beautiful, characters. Murder, sex, perjury! It’s all here, and it’s all committed by characters as wickedly perverse and doggedly determined as those on their sister show.
And for the most part, it works beautifully. It breaks no new ground (except for perhaps in a surprisingly explicit gay sex scene), but it executes the formula perfectly. Right from the opening, the show nails the Shonda-esque blend of infinitely rising action and hyper-competent characters. There is none of the shyness or setup of a typical TV pilot, perhaps because it already knows what its audience can handle. The pilot moves remarkably fast and introduces a cast so big that it frequently relies on internal, split-second flashbacks to remind us who is who.
With all that content, there understandably comes a few missteps; fortunately for the network, the show’s target audience won’t mind. The show is anchored by a perpetually confused black hole of charisma Wesley Gibbs (Alfred Enoch), a point-of-view character who exists mostly to gape at plot revelations and awkwardly stammer expositional questions. If he’s anything like Scandal's counterpart character Quinn, he’ll continue to annoy us in seasons to come, but be relegated to the background soon enough.
And it must be said: for a legal drama, How to Get Away with Murder's grasp of the law seems to float somewhere below the likes of Legally Blonde. Poised as a powerfully intelligent icon, Professor Keating’s respectability is somewhat undermined by her inability to find obvious leads (leaving something for the students to do), and her insistence on students coming up with several hundred different legal defenses for a single case. But luckily for Keating, this is a world where judges admit illegally obtained files if you ask nicely enough, and every law student that really thinks can find their own piece of revelatory evidence.
Most concerning, though, is the show’s breakneck speed. Although it makes for a thrilling pilot, it is easy to imagine How to Get Away with Murder making the mistakes of Revenge and at an even faster pace. Both of those shows had confused, disconnected third seasons that forgot that when everything is shocking, nothing is. The pace also does not leave much room for character development. Murder's protagonist is captivating - no surprise when you have Davis in the role - but not very well developed in the pilot. Her moments of emotional vulnerability, already ambiguously dishonest and at times contradictory, leave her an enigma for now, and not necessarily in a good way. (See Damages ’ pilot for a far better execution of the same character tropes in Glenn Close's Patty Hewes.)
Luckily, if Murder is anything like its counterparts, we’ll get at least a season of addictive quality soap before the series collapses under its own weight. And, even more luckily for the show’s creators, the pilot opened to 14 million viewers, so whether we like it or not, Howe to Get Away with Murder is here to stay - making Shondaverse fanatics the luckiest of all.