In a fall full of tepid pilots, it may be hard to gauge what it means when I say How to Get Away with Murder (ABC, 10pm ET) is one of the season’s most ridiculous, entertaining new shows. Created by ShondaLand writer Peter Nowalk (with Shonda Rhimes on board as executive producer), HtGAwM is the most balls-to-the-wall debut so far this fall, a legal drama with a heavily (and considering what’s alluded to in the pilot, I mean heavily) serialized plot and a great setting – a prestigious law school – for its Case of the Week material. However, I’m hesitant to heap praise upon the show’s confident, energetic pilot: there are times where HGAM becomes repetitive with its characterizations in the pilot (including one particular note), and since it crams a long-term story into the same hour as its first Flashy Case, suffers from identity crisis at times as it bounces between episodic drama and legal procedural.
The biggest thing the show has going for it is pretty obvious: Viola Davis, who stars as Professor Annalise Keating, a woman with a loose moral compass and a lot of attitude to go along with it. And Davis nails every note of her character in the pilot, which range from the subtle tinges of a woman struggling with her marrige, to the broader, flashier bits of her as a defense attorney-slash-educator who is better at burying the secrets of her client’s than her own (which… sounds a little Scandal-ish, at least in the abstract).
In fact, her performance is so strong, it buries the other characters, a collection of students, police, and other teachers on campus, who all have very similar shortcomings to Annalise, primarily a loose grip on the value of honesty and some impressive libidos. Whether gay or straight, there is a lot of ugly-bumping either happening or being referred to in the first episode, a lot of which form the dramatic foundations for the season to follow, and some of which are repeated multiple times with different characters in the course of an hour. These are the typical stud legal student stories, complete with minorities, douchebags, and potential proteges – and although they get more attention than the adults surrounding the great Professor (including her husband and a local detective), there’s never much attention or weight given to their actions, except how they affect the orbit of the show’s main character, and Wes Gibbons, the audience surrogate and class underdog.
Sex, murder, flash-forward sequences establishing the season’s big Attention-Grabbing Serialized Mystery… How to Get Away with Murder crosses off every box in the checklist of Flashy, Hype-Worthy drama… and there are certainly chunks of the episode where it feels the show’s straining to appeal to the audience just how awesome and dramatic it can be, with character after character doing soap opera-esque “There’s More To This Story We’re Not Telling Yet!” looks off-camera, an off-putting, if understandably necessary, way to keep mass audiences engaged and excited for the story to come.
When How to Get Away with Murder isn’t pandering and just having fun, it’s a surprisingly entertaining, if consistently ludicrous and absolutely implausible, drama with a solid cast and a lot of energy to overcome some the by-the-numbers material and silly secondary story lines. And it makes for an assured pilot that moves – boy, does this show bang out scene after scene, giving each out-of-nowhere twist a gravitas that can only come from the show’s relentless pacing.
But I’m not sure how long How to Get Away with Murder will be able to get away with flashy revelations and the predictable betrayals, double crosses, and Sexy Times that will follow: by the end of the pilot, every character is so compromised or “flawed”, it makes them less compelling characters than people we can expect to do the dumbest and/or most short-sighted thing in every situation. In fact, by the end of the pilot, it’s still not clear what story How to Get Away with Murder is actually telling, its big Twist more convoluting than it is revelatory, setting up a split time line that the show doesn’t really need (I really don’t get the device of time in this; it doesn’t add the element of suspense and awe the writers clearly felt it did). It ends the episode with a frustrating reminder of just how little story is actually told in How to Get Away with Murder, not just alluded to through exposition and those infamous “I Have More Secrets!” looks (in both the present and flash-fowards) that demand a cartoonish “dun-dun-dunnnn!” musical cue behind it. But all that being said, How to Get Away with Murder is fun as hell, at least in the short-term – and if Scandal has shown us anything, Rhimes and company know how to make addicting drama out of ludicrous stories and thin characters.