Brow Beat

What I Got Wrong About How to Get Away With Murder and Fall’s Other New TV Shows

Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) remains unknowable, an extremely rare characteristic for the lead of a TV show.

Photo courtesy of ABC

The fall TV season is well enough under way that it’s time for me to make my confessions: These are the new TV shows I was wrong about. I only saw one episode of each of the four shows below before reviewing them, and judging a TV show by its pilot can be as risky as judging a book by its cover. I’m not convinced that judging a TV show on the five or six episodes I’ve now seen is that much better, so I reserve the right to flip-flop on these series yet again, if need be.

And, of course, everything else I reviewed this fall is exactly as good or bad as I originally said it was.

How to Get Away with Murder
Based on one episode, I found Peter Nowalk’s How to Get Away with Murder to be a wan Shonda Rhimes copycat, mucking around in all of its executive producer’s favorite themes. But six episodes in, it is impossible to call How to Get Away with Murder wan. The show continues to explore some ur-Shonda themes—recently Annalise Keating, the intimidating attorney played by Viola Davis, revealed that she began seeing her now-husband Sam when he was married, making her a mistress, a particular Shonda obsession. But the cutting back and forth between the present, when a group of law students are dealing with the aftermath of whacking the philandering Sam, and the past that led them to do it, is a format so herky-jerky and full of misdirection it’s as if it’s been engineered for viewers with short attention spans. Moreover, the mystery of why and how Sam Keating was killed is coupled with the far more intriguing question of who, exactly, Annalise Keating is. Since the first episode, she has sobbed, yelled, manipulated, seduced, commanded, and broken down. She is both terrifyingly formidable and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Despite exhibiting this wide range of emotion, she remains unknowable, an extremely rare characteristic for the lead of a TV show. A few episodes ago, without a wig or makeup—How to Get Away with Murder seems particularly interested in style as armor—Annalise confronted her husband, asking “Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?” It was a moment so over-the-top and theatrical it was like watching Blanche DuBois in dishabille or Norma Desmond in her turban asking after a dick pic. How could I not want to see more?

The Affair
I really liked the first episode of Showtime’s The Affair, about the simultaneously stately and sordid romance of a Noah, a married Brooklyn writer, and Alison, a married Montauk waitress. The show’s gambit was that it unfolds in a highbrow, he-said-she-said style, as Noah and Alison retell their story some years later to a cop who is investigating a murder. Noah and Alison’s memories line up in very broad strokes—they met at her restaurant, they took a day trip to Block Island—but couldn’t be more different in the specifics, an interrogation of memory that I initially found intriguing. But over the next few, slow-going episodes, I started to find it gimmicky, if not outright ridiculous: Yes, people remember things differently, but it was almost as if Noah and Allison had been present for entirely different conversations. Is one of them manipulating the cop? Or does one of them have a cognitive disorder? Or is the show trying to make a point about the unreliable nature of memory by over-distorting these separate recollections so extremely that the point becomes meaningless? There’s also a ponderousness to the show, a self-seriousness that blockades fun. This is a series about an affair set in the summer in the Hamptons with Pacey playing a cowboy for goodness’ sake! But there is no levity, no froth, no joy. Noah and Alison are the most dour bunch of lust-bunnies captured on television, and their show is more of a drag than I ever imagined it would be.

Red Band Society
I stand by everything I originally wrote about Fox’s Red Band Society, a drama set among very ill, spunky, hormonal, hospital-bound teenagers: It is saccharine and twee and narrated by a boy in a coma. It does treat illness as a prop, something romantic that barely makes anyone feel or look wretched. But I failed to add a necessary caveat: It is also extremely watchable. The real litmus test for any TV show is the DVR gut check: Confronted with a list of DVR’d shows, what do you want to watch? I have picked Red Band Society over many better shows. There is something irresistible, like popping M&M’s, about watching a group of mostly adorable and angsty teens work out their angst when it really is a matter of life and death. The soundtrack is always catchy and the total pill (and pillhead) on the ward, a semi-soulless cheerleader with heart problems and two moms, is good snarky fun. (A lot more so than the do-gooder anorexic whom all the boys like, because teenage boys like nice.) I can’t outright recommend Red Band Society, but I do want to repent for over-harshing on it. It’s dopey cute.

I said nice things about Selfie, but not enough nice things. The ABC sitcom based loosely on Pygmalion and My Fair Lady stars Karen Gillan as Eliza Dooley and John Cho as her Henry Higgins. This Eliza doesn’t have problems with her cockney accent, but with narcissism and social media. There is no reason this show should work: It’s based on the retrograde, misogynist idea of the improper woman turning to an all-knowing man to fix her, and it is setting itself up to be a frustratingly long-term will-they-or-won’t-they show. (Just recently, Henry gazed at Eliza longingly in a meeting. Sigh.) And yet, somehow, it’s funny. In a recent episode, Eliza, tasked with helping someone other than herself, agrees to babysit for her colleague Charmonique (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who really does play a sassy black secretary, yet another issue this show has going against it). The rapport between Eliza, a big spazzy baby, and Charmonique’s son—a calm, supportive, baby—was fantastic, and so funny that I tried to pretend there wasn’t also a recurring joke about how the kid was constantly eating Chicken McNuggets. Cho is good, but he’s playing the straight man to Gillan’s Eliza, which helps redress the gender imbalance in the show’s premise. Gillan’s the one driving the series and its humor. She’s terrific.