It may have the absolute worst show title of the new fall season, but you can’t claim that How to Get Away with Murder isn’t telling you everything you need to know about the show. We had it wrong, because we assumed the title was a play on words or something. We thought it was some sort of clever phrasing about solving murder mysteries – which it is, sort of – but by the end of the hour we realized that no, it really is a show about people getting away with murder. Or at least it is so far.
We kinda wish a camera had been trained on us the whole time we watched it, because we’re pretty sure we had surprised expressions of delight for the full hour. We didn’t expect it to be as enjoyable as it was, even though we were looking forward to seeing Viola Davis tackle television. We respect and acknowledge the fantastic work that executive producer Shonda Rhimes has brought to television, but Scandal is, for the most part, not to our tastes (for being too silly and melodramatic) and Grey’s Anatomy is like nails on a chalkboard to us because sappy medical dramas with soap opera subplots aren’t ever going to be something we’d enjoy. In other words, she’s good, but her work is simply not our thing.
Stylistically, this feels very much like the other two shows in a lot of ways. A diverse cast of good-looking, stylish, ethically challenged people who all seem destined to have extremely fulfilling and adventurous sex lives, spewing rapid-fire dialogue in scenes that border on being overproduced, with lots of swooshes, slo-mo, quick-mo, flashbacks and flashforwards. On paper, we can tell you, very little of that sounds appealing to us. But like we said, we had eyebrow-raised looks of delight on our face the whole time, we’re sure. Viola is not only as good as we expected her to be, she’s much, much better. To explain why her work is so exciting, we’re going to quote something we wrote last month, when we reviewed Showtime’s The Knick:
“Not to get all social justice warrior or anything, but why not have a series set in a turn of the century hospital where the lead IS the too-smart-for-her-own-good nurse or the naive African-American surgeon? Clive Owen’s very good in the lead role, but it’s just another in a long line of tortured upper-middle class white male protagonists who abuse everyone around them but get away with it because they’re so handsome, smart and/or powerful. In other words, there’s a whole hell of a lot of privileged, patriarchal wish-fulfillment in a lot of what constitutes “quality” cable television and it’s starting to get really stale. Lots and lots of white guys yelling at women and black people while simultaneously dazzling everyone with their talent. A world of Don Drapers, from Lee Pace’s character in Halt and Catch Fire to Jeff Daniels’ in The Newsroom, it’s an archetype long past its expiration date.”
We’re happy to report that Viola Davis’s Annalise Keating is our black, female Don Draper – and it is a glorious thing to behold. Far from being the “angry black woman” of Alessandra Stanley’s execrable New York Times piece, she’s the much-needed spin on the tortured and talented, infuriating and admirable, complicated and confusing protagonist that we’ve all been waiting for, if not needed. The level of talent she has in her job is legendary and allows her to get away with taking absolutely no bullshit from anyone around her, but it also gives her the freedom to have some highly questionable morality (actually, parts of it aren’t questionable at all, like putting her lover on the witness stand like that), to bully any subordinates around her, to commit adultery and to seriously step over the ethical boundaries of both of her jobs – all while being so fascinating, sexy and charismatic, that you find yourself attempting to make excuses as to why you’re enjoying her behavior so much.
But it doesn’t really matter why, does it? We’re not her confessors or judges. The best characters are complicated ones and anyone who questions why a recent Oscar nominee would take a network TV gig doesn’t understand how much a part like this makes a good actress salivate. And Davis is clearly tearing into it with gusto. You can’t take your eyes off her, even as she’s making you cringe at whatever it is she’s doing, from trampling all over legal ethics to letting the veil of her facade slip waaaaaaay too much in front of a student and covering for it by half-heartedly coming on to him. She’s utterly fascinating and she looks freaking fabulous. When the camera came in close on her tear-streaked face and impeccably applied lashes, we half-expected the lights to go out, a spotlight to shine on her, and a microphone to appear in her hand as she launched into a torch song.
But the problem with a show featuring a highly talented lead playing a fascinating character is how quickly the quality drops when she’s not in a scene. We’ll say this: it’s not as bad as it could have been. The co-stars are all mostly good-looking, rapid-speaking young people, but the script did an amazingly good job of defining them all fairly quickly and except for one notable exception, most of them are competent in their roles. For a first episode, that’s pretty good. Unfortunately, the show spends the most time on one supporting character (almost as much as the lead) and the actor simply isn’t up to the task. Alfred Enoch as audience surrogate Wes Gibbins isn’t just bad, he’s awful. In order to play a confused and naive student, he spends the entire episode with his eyes open as wide as he can and either gulping or forming his mouth into a shocked little o. Honestly, it’s the most bizarre thing; like a kid in a high school play suddenly wandered onto this set full of competent pros. That the show seems to be making him central to the story is the one thing about the first episode that doesn’t fill us with confidence. But it didn’t diminish our enjoyment of the hour and there’s reason to believe that he could, like many actors, improve as he gets more comfortable in the role. For now, it’s all about Annalise, her unbelievably complicated life, and the best arched eyebrow TV has seen since Leonard Nimoy stepped onto the plywood bridge of the Enterprise.
[Photo Credit: ABC/Nicole Rivelli]
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