A lot has been made in the last couple of years over the rise of “prestige” format drama television, and its trends and focuses. In general, these series have a strong vision on the part of the showrunners, with a clear arc and endgame for the story–think Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Fargo. They focus on gripping, emotional performances, and subtleties and nuance in their approach to morality. They’re often compared to novels or films, because the colloquial idea of “mere television” seems to fall short of their scope.
At the same time, these shows tend to recycle old clichés and regressive characterizations. They almost always follow older white men trying to impose some control on the people and things around them. Infidelity and deceit are shrugged off because of the raw charisma of the leads, or because their situations are written to be aggressively sympathetic. At the end of the day, it’s just reiterations of the same, with the same kinds of leads proving their masculinity at others’ expense. And that’s just the good shows. For every Breaking Bad, there’s a dozen Ray Donovans or Low Winter Suns.
That’s why How To Get Away With Murder, and network shows like it, are a breath of fresh air. HTGAWM is unapologetically soapy and over the top: court cases are full of screaming and tearful confessions, and an introductory law class is treated with the gravitas of A Few Good Men. But where HTGAWM really excels is in its portrayal of a diverse, conflicted group of students.
Let’s back up for a minute. How To Get Away With Murder, which premiered two weeks ago on ABC, is the brainchild of Peter Nowalk, a Shonda Rimes protégé who worked on both Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. It follows Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), a defense attorney who also teaches law classes. She takes a group of students under her wing at her firm, including conflicted Wes Gibbins (Alfred Enoch). The series cuts between the present, depicting the students getting to know each other and their job, and a night several months later, where they appear to be involved in covering up an actual murder together.
The cast is large, with a lot of different side characters whose roles may be expanded later, but Davis is unquestionably the star of the show. She’s been pigeonholed a bit throughout her career as the wise older mentor type, and it’s nice to see this twist on it, where she’s still doling out advice, but advice that is often deeply unethical or questionable in nature. She’s a whole person, with the same balance of flaws and undeniable charisma of a Walter White or Don Draper. It’s a heightened, exaggerated characterization (at one point she lays out Wes’ options as taking her invitation to her firm or resigning himself to “hitting on chubby paralegals at a third-rate firm for the rest of his life”) but Davis sells it beautifully, injecting guilt and pugnacity in equal measures. It’s a soap opera, but one with enough thought and craft to pull you in. The rest of the cast is fine, if unremarkable. Most of the students haven’t been given much to work with in these first two episodes, but I can see they’re going to spotlight them more as the season continues. The law school setting is a good choice; like a medical procedural or GLEE, it gives an easy way to write characters in and out.
Stylistically, the show is like most primetime soaps and procedurals, with done-in-one main plots supplemented with character interactions and relationships that build week to week. The main different conceit (and one that’s face-palmingly obvious given the title) is the flash-forwards to the murder that’s being covered up. By the end of the second episode, we have some idea of who was involved, as well as the victim, but the rest of the story will presumably be doled out over the course of the season. I was a little turned off by this approach in the pilot, since we were thrown into the show with characters we’ve never seen and asked to make sense of and sympathize with this situation. The second episode unpacked it a little more, with more character beats and time spent in the flash-forward, so I’m getting more comfortable with it. We’ll see how well it plays in the long run, both over the course of this season and if they try to structure future seasons the same way, since with HTGAWM’s pedigree, renewal is all but certain.
How To Get Away With Murder definitely isn’t the same sort of show as The Sopranos or The Wire. It’s a soap opera, with all the melodrama that implies. But it’s just as performance-driven, and just as focused on the gray area between right and wrong, as any show from “Television’s Golden Age.”
How To Get Away With Murder airs Thursdays at 10:00 PM EST on ABC.