Ever wonder how you might have to dispose of a body? Hide evidence? Plan the perfect crime? ABC’s latest TV show has, and it isn’t being coy about the fact: it’s titled How to Get Away with Murder.
The show opens in media res: four law students are in the woods at night over a murdered body, arguing about their next move. We flashback three months, to the start of their class under Defense Attorney Annalise Keating (Viola Davis). She’s teaching them all her trade, how to get away with the exact type of crime they’ll need to cover up in the very near future. Here’s hoping they took notes.
With this show, Executive Producer Shonda Rhimes is the undisputed benevolent dictator of the ABC network. Murder joins Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal to form a three-hour block of primetime under her creative management. The former show, created by Peter Nowalk, a writer on the two latter ones, carries over the snappy pace and soapy plot-twists that the past shows are known for. However, the characterization and – most importantly – the sense of fun might be even better.
Part courtroom drama, part college coming-of-age story, part thrilling murder mystery, and entirely pop-music-laden, Murder is the perfect show for millennials and their attention spans. Here, the various potboiler clichés are remixed into a tasty potluck. And aside from the concept, the best part is Viola Davis’s performance.
Keating is a character who can spar with any modern TV antihero. She’s arrogant, no-nonsense, unbeatable, and determined to win her cases regardless of the laws she needs to bend. Or break entirely. She’s polarizing, but love her or hate her, she steals her scenes.
Davis may shine the brightest, but the rest of the actors aren’t bad either. No one stands out, but the diverse cast members still coalesce into better characters than most TV soaps. There’s a teacher’s pet with a hidden talent for lying, a kind-hearted egghead, a schemer, and even Matt McGorry as the seedy stereotype of a law student—a far cry from his role in Orange is the New Black as an innocent prison guard.
The characters aren’t given a lot, but they don’t have to be. The show values its mystery first, and will delve into the people who populate that mystery in coming weeks. One individual, though, does get a little more screen time.
The pilot’s focus lands on Wes Gibbon (Alfred Enoch), an awkward good-guy who functions as Murder’s one and only moral compass. The actor is likeable, and he stumbles upon several relationship dramas with reactions realistic enough to ensure the plots aren’t too clichéd to swallow.
These multiple plot threads aren’t all explained: there’s a missing girl seemingly unrelated to the show, for example, and Wes finds a few foreboding markings in his apartment, previously owned by an unnamed student. But the show is clearly a serialized story with one main question—why are four law students covering up a murder?
The show’s warped heart is perhaps best exemplified in a scene near the middle. The entire law class has struggled all night to try besting Keating’s courtroom strategy with clever arguments, only to hear that she has a better plan: discredit the witnesses and bury the evidence. It’s a more evil version of slicing the Gordian Knot. Here, we see the antihero mentality that it takes to star in a show titled after avoiding justice, and it’s being taught to all the other characters.
The flashiness of the show is almost too much for me—even the murder cover-up takes place during a campus-wide party. But the fast camera work and constant flashbacks to highlight the plot are acceptable as long as the plot stays sufficiently twisty, which it does.
The first episode was phenomenal overall. If you like tantalizing, plot-heavy crime shows, you’ll love this. But no show is perfectly summed up in its pilot episode. The great ones evolve, but the rest often head downhill.
Personally, I think this season will continue being great, but I’m worried about the second season. The three-month-flash-forward structure will only last for this season, and the writers will need to establish another one for the next. It’s the same problem faced by Damages, a 2007 legal show similarly centered around murder. Damages’ stellar first season gave way to a slow decline in quality for another four. Murder proves the writers can craft a compelling mystery. I just hope they have a few more in their pocket for the years to follow.
But don’t let me rain on the murder parade! This episode is fun, flashy, and promising. It can’t be denied: For the first installment to an ongoing series, the pilot for How to Get Away with Murder is killing it.