The end credits of How to Get Away with Murder, the new ABC drama from executive producer Shonda Rhimes, promise the show will get "edgier," "sexier," and "twistier" as it goes on. Rhimes and showrunner Peter Nowalk have set the bar high—if you watched last night, you know this thing is pretzel-level twisty already. In fact, while the ensemble cast (anchored by Viola Davis who is CRUSHING the role of lawyer/professor Annalise Keating) and multiple murder cases make for entertaining viewing, the pilot episode was so crammed with action that it’s hard to imagine where it can go from here.
This breakneck speed isn't a surprise coming from Rhimes, who is best known for creating the edgysexytwisty ABC dramas Grey's Anatomy and Scandal (and for being an all-around boss). Her characters move almost as quickly as her plots, coalescing into something so far beyond melodrama that Slate’s Willa Paskin has dubbed the Shondaland shows “hyperdrama.” But even given the Rhimes formula, there is A LOT happening in the pilot episode of How to Get Away With Murder. Here is but a sampling of what occurred in just 44 minutes:
- A dead body is disposed of at a pep rally
- We jump back in time to the first day of classes at Middleton Law School
- We meet Annalise Keating, badass lawyer and instructor (Davis)
- Students in Keating's class compete to solve a real attempted murder case (why approximately 100 students are allowed to participate in a real murder case is beyond me, but hey—I didn't go to law school)
- Someone uses deceit to get information
- Someone uses sex to get information
- Someone uses spying to get information
- Someone spies someone having deceitful sex
- A body is rolled into an area rug
- Some law students sing a Christmas song but change the lyrics to be about a murder they just committed
- A (white, female) college student goes missing
- There is courtroom drama
- There is classroom drama
- A law student finds claw and teeth marks on the walls of his bedroom
- Four law students outsmart the cops
- A body is found in a water tank at a sorority house
- Annalise gets it on with her detective boyfriend behind her husband's back
- Annalise exchanges meaningful looks with her husband, implying he murdered the college student in the water tank
- Annalise tearfully admits she wants a baby but appears to be lying
- The body in the area rug is revealed to be Annalise's husband
And those are just the highlights! Don't get me wrong—the show is entertaining as hell and Davis's leather wardrobe alone makes it worth watching. In one go though, How to Get Away With Murder gave us three separate murder cases, two timelines, multiple affairs, and countless suspects. It's a lot to track, and I worry that the complicated plots will get in the way of what makes this show good: Viola Davis as Annalise Keating.
“Antiheroes," of which the take-no-shit Keating is most certainly one, are a dime a dozen on television these days, but we feminist television lovers know they're almost always white males performing the shit out of their white masculinity. As a black woman, Annalise Keating packs just as potent a combination of sex appeal and unlikability as Tony Soprano or Don Draper with the added bonus of not being a white dude. She dominates her professional life and her personal life, and is respected and feared by everyone who crosses her path. The one moment of vulnerability she displays in the pilot—where she confesses to her law student Wes Gibbon that she and her husband are trying to have a baby—was calculating and manipulative and ended in a seduction attempt. Annalise Keating is a force to be reckoned with, whether you like her or not.
The rest of the cast is far less interesting. The five law students at the head of the class are pretty diverse—Laurel is a Latina woman with morals, Michaela is a black woman with ambition, Wes is a black man who looks a lot like Freddie Prinze Jr., Connor is a gay white man who’ll do anything to get ahead, and Asher is the token white guy with privilege coming out his ears—but none of them have the screen presence of Davis (though to be fair, who does?). Time will tell if these five get more compelling, but at the very least it’s nice to use the phrase “token white guy” in reference to a network show.
Rounding things out: Keating’s pre-murdered husband is bland yet creepy, as is her male assistant. Her female assistant is Paris from Gilmore Girls and her boyfriend is a sexy detective whom she confronts on the witness stand so they’re more intriguing by default, but I spent a lot of the pilot wishing all of these people and their problems would get out of the way so Annalise could school us on how to get away with murder and look good doing it.
As far as the plot is concerned, the jumbled timeline means we'll be spending this season solving the murder of Annalise's husband, who himself may be guilty of the murder of one of his students. The "who killed this (white, young, pretty) woman?" trope is tired (see also: Twin Peaks, The Killing, Pretty Little Liars, etc.) but in this case it seems more like a clue than the show's main focus. Still, the procedural elements of the show, while probably illegal (seriously, why would 100 law students be allowed to interrogate a defendant?) would be exciting enough with the dynamic Davis in the lead. Layering them under two additional season-long murder mysteries feels like, well, overkill.
That said, we should never judge a series by its pilot, and How to Get Away with Murder has plenty of potential. Showrunner Peter Nowalk promises more hot gay sex, for one, and Viola Davis has called the stereotype-busting role of Annalise Keating one she’s been waiting for. With its triple-murder-double-timeline setup How to Get Away with Murder puts the hyper in hyperdrama, but at least we know it won’t get boring.
Kelsey Wallace is an editor in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter if you like TV and pictures of dogs.