How gonzo does a show have to be to live up to Scandal? This is a question that hangs over How to Get Away With Murder, starting on ABC tonight, a fast-paced, high-plot drama created and written by Peter Nowalk, a longtime writer and producer on Shonda Rhimes’ shows Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. How to Get Away With Murder, executive produced by Rhimes, is the ultimate (though by no means the only) example of how much Rhimes has influenced ABC’s fall lineup—and not just on Thursday nights, when Grey’s, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder are now airing back-to-back-to-back, in what has been heavily marketed by ABC as the Shonda Rhimes block.
Scandal, Rhimes’ third show for ABC, has bucked all trends for a network TV drama, gaining viewers season over season, while attracting the critical attention and cultural buzz more often reserved for cable series. Scandal is a genuinely unique show, one that out-melodramas melodramas—it’s a hyperdrama—with an audacious, cynical perspective, a cast of endlessly ethically challenged but captivating characters, a sprinting plot, and a White House setting: a heady, completely addictive concoction. Scandal is also headlined by a black woman—Kerry Washington as the nearly unflappable crisis manager Olivia Pope—and the show’s success, and the passion of its audience, particularly its black female audience, has shown ABC that diversity, in addition to being intrinsically good, can also be financially lucrative. Its fall lineup is a direct testament to Rhimes’ sway and success: Diverse shows, ABC now knows, can command big, engaged audiences. And so on the network this fall there is the family comedy Black-ish, the Latina-led sitcom Cristela, and, coming in midseason, Fresh Off the Boat, a comedy about a young Taiwanese-American boy growing up in Miami in the ’90s, and American Crime, a drama about a racially charged murder from 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley. Most of all, there is How to Get Away With Murder, starring Viola Davis, easily the most anticipated show of the fall.
Creator Nowalk’s experience on Grey’s and Scandal is plain to see in the show’s first episode, which is a concise amalgam of those two series, rinsed in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Set at the fictional Middleton Law School in Philadelphia, Murder, like Grey’s, focuses on a highly competitive, extremely bright, very attractive, multiracial group of classmates, as they try to please an exceedingly demanding teacher. Like Scandal, it throws those classmates into a high-octane, high-stakes, high-plot world, where ethics dim before the allure of an astonishingly competent, black female professional. It is simultaneously totally fun and somehow wan: kicky and fast and, so far, just a copycat.
Murder begins in medias res, with four law students panicked and conspiring, in the middle of the night, about a murder they have just committed. Cut to three months earlier, and these same students and so many others arrive for their first day of class with Annalise Keating (Davis), who warns them, storming the classroom in a very tailored burgundy leather jacket, “I don’t know what terrible things you’ve done in your life up to this point, but clearly your karma is out of balance to get assigned to my class.” Keating is a fierce, intimidating, no-nonsense teacher and lawyer who uses her own active court cases as part of her assigned course work. (Like Scandal and Grey’s, Murder will have a procedural element, and Keating’s cases are it.) She presents a murder case to her students and tells them that the four who help her the most with it will work at her firm for a year, inspiring the students to do every diligent, clever, and cutthroat thing they can.
Davis, in a New York Times profile, described her part on the show as “what I’ve had my eye on for so long.” The kind of role in which, to paraphrase her, she gets to be sexy, vulnerable, strong, conflicted, and complicated. It is true that in the pilot Keating intimidates, cries, manipulates, strategizes, blackmails, yells, and is caught with a man’s head in her lap. (The man is not her husband.) She is obviously wearing masks: She slips in and out of her personas, morphing in one instance from a woman in distress to a woman who doesn’t seem capable of distress, and in another from the canniest strategist to someone misreading her mark—or maybe just someone trying to seem like someone who is misreading her mark? She is also a cipher, above and out of the fray, less the protagonist of the show than the younger wannabe-lawyers around her are. If this is the part an actress of Davis’ stature has had her eye on for so long, it must get better in future weeks.
As for those wannabe-lawyers, they include Michaela (Aja Naomi King), icy and ambitious and outdone in her ruthlessness only by Connor (Jack Falahee), a gay man who is extremely resourceful and willing to exploit anyone. Laurel Castillo (Karla Souza) arrives with a Brown-educated bleeding heart and sense of social responsibility while Asher (Orange Is the New Black’s Matt McGorry, hilarious and scenery-chewing) is a pompous former clerk for Chief Justice John Roberts. Rounding out the crew is the point-of-view character, Wes Gibbins (Alfred Enoch), a nice guy who got into law school off the waitlist, the most innocent and least savvy of the group, and as the inadvertent witness to Keating’s adulterous lap session, the first one to see her different sides.
As if that weren’t enough people to keep track of, Keating also has two associates: Frank (Charlie Weber), who has a bad habit of bedding students, and Bonnie (Gilmore Girls’ Liza Weil), who may be in love with Keating’s husband, Sam (Tom Verica), who is himself a successful psychology professor. Nowalk has also provided one important additional plot thread: A young sorority girl has recently gone missing on campus, and Wes’ surly neighbor seems to know something about it (so, possibly, does Keating’s husband).
Given all the room TV has made for a seemingly endless number of dramas about white male antiheroes, there is certainly room for more than one addictive, morally skewed, fast-paced soap opera with a diverse cast led by a great black actress. But the pilot of How to Get Away With Murder, entertaining as it sometimes is, seems constructed almost entirely out of building blocks from the Shonda Rhimes Build-a-Show Kit: the ambitious and dedicated underlings, the indomitable gladiator for whom they would do anything, the quips, the speeches, the sex, the conspiracy that must go deeper, the ethics thrown over in a flash. And the stakes, here, are slightly diminished. The show involves murder, obviously, but Scandal has featured the murders of a Supreme Court justice, the president’s son, and an entire plane full of innocent people—among many, many others. It is very hard, perhaps impossible, to out-gonzo Scandal.
It is reassuring to remember that Scandal (and many other good shows) didn’t have a very promising pilot—certainly not one that foretold its crazy, dark originality. There are flashes in the first episode of How to Get Away With Murder that suggest going forward it might add its own wrinkles to the hyperdrama. There is, for instance, Connor’s matter-of-fact seduction of another man (“I thought you just wanted the emails,” the guy says to Connor. “I did, but I want this too,” he says, tossing him on the bed.) There’s the lingering mystery around Keating, and the possibility that our heroine will be slowly, exactingly revealed to us. There’s even the intimation that when some of these characters are cleaved from their values it will actually hurt. Hopefully, the show can dig in to these idiosyncrasies and learn, in future episodes, how to get away with being itself.