'How to Get Away With Murder' Is America’s Next Television Addiction
How to Get Away with Murder, ABC's much-anticipated new series, is built for success. In addition to the show's movie star lead and page-turner premise, it has an executive producer capable of spinning prime-time sagas into gold. It also occupies the closing spot in the #TGIT Shonda Rhimes Spectacular lineup. People will watch. And what's more, people will love it.
The series is programmed for addiction, and were it on Netflix, it would be a binger. How to Get Away with Murder has poured in all the necessary ingredients for the ultimate must-see-TV cocktail and stirred them to near perfection. The show still might not be fully realized, and sure, it's filled with soap suds and some questionably dramatic music, but when the episode ends, you'll likely be dying to know what happens next week.
We begin with the premise, the first part of the addiction potion. Professor Annalise Keating (more on her later) is the type of law school teacher whose class you'd kill to be in — and perhaps you literally do. The course she teaches, Criminal Law 100 (aka How to Get Away with Murder), is filled with the brightest young legal minds, of whom she'll pick five (in Legally Blonde fashion) to work at her law firm. Threads unravel from there.
The second thing driving our addiction is the series' incredible lead. Played by Viola Davis, Keating is the criminal law professor law school dreams are made of. She is brilliant, impassioned, present, difficult, captivating, fearless. She is also a practicing defense attorney with an incredibly complicated personal life. Davis plays the role with a sexy stoicism and a can't-take-your-eyes-off-her gravitas.
In a television age that deifies morally compromised lead characters, it seems the show's creator, Peter Norwalk, has crafted a new one to remember. The fact that Keating is a morally ambiguous woman of color makes the character even more exciting – Lord knows, television needs complicated female characters as nuanced as television's complicated men. That Annalise Keating is already being compared to Breaking Bad's Walter White is a thrilling testament to the character and the performance.
Davis is supported by a crop of talented actors, many of whom we recognize from other series (yes, that's Paris from Gilmore Girls rounding out the law firm). In typical Rhimesian fashion, these characters, regardless of race and sexual orientation, are questionable people, perhaps even bad people. The show deals out moral ambiguity indiscriminately, and watching seemingly good characters make illegal choices is what prime-time dreams are made of.
The next addictive ingredient is the crazy plot twists. These are not little "Wow, I can't believe that just happened" moments, but Gone Girl levels of deception and insanity. The fact that jaws are dropping in the show's pilot episode, when you know so very little about its characters or premise, is a feat and a sign of more insanity to come. There are also huge, impossible expectations placed on the legal system, in the same way that huge, impossible expectations are weighted on the field of medicine on Grey's Anatomy. This scale of plot twist is textbook soap opera and signature Rhimes (remember on Grey's Anatomy when Katherine Heigl had sex with a ghost)? It seems How to Get Away with Murder will be operating in that realm of wow.
Then there's the setting. The show takes place in settings that have proved solid ground for shows in the past: classrooms, courtrooms and campuses. This familiarity is both bad and good — good in that the narratives that traditionally unfold in these arenas work well for television, bad because there is an element of wondering whether we've seen this before on another channel. Hopefully the plot twists will keep that thought at bay.
There's also a good deal of sex. And let's be honest, sex keeps people watching, especially if it's a show that airs at 10 p.m. on a Thursday. The sex is both gay and straight, and for network television, it is rather racy. This is not "cut to black and commercial break your way through the good stuff" TV sex. This is sex front and center, rule-breaking sex, adulterous sex, sex motivated by moral baggage.
The final ingredient in the addiction cocktail is mystery. From the first seconds of the show, we know something is awry. Flashes through time, breakneck editing and cliffhangers keep the pilot moving and the questions coming. The pilot is set up in very self-aware fragments of time, flashes forward and flashbacks. The end of the episode leaves us with a slew of clues, a handful of questions and the promise of so much more mystery to come. Cases in the courtroom may be tidily whisked away, but there's an epic element to the other mysteries the pilot introduces. We might be in for a Twin Peaks kind of long haul.
Of course, all of this is based on the pilot, and pilots are certainly not templates for a series. But if the show keeps mixing this cocktail, adding in a few fresh ingredients with each installment, giving Davis more air time and taking out the things that don't quite work, we'll likely drink it every Thursday night.
How to Get Away with Murder begins airing Thursday, Sept. 25, at 10 p.m. Eastern on ABC.