Viola Davis Could "Get Away With Murder" Review

This often gets me some judgmental glances from the more literary-minded people I know, who prefer their reading to be more like art and less like entertainment, but I am a fan of the novels of Dan Brown. His books might not have the most elegant of prose, but they are easy to read and packed with plot twists and turns that fly by fast enough to give you whiplash. Nearly every chapter ends in a cliffhanger epic enough to make you unable to put the book down until you’ve read another chapter, and then another, until the next thing you know you’ve finished a novel packed with enough empty calories to make you feel as though you just binged on an entire bag of Cheetos.

How to Get Away with Murder, the latest addition to the ShondaLand family of dramas that air Thursday nights on ABC, is the television equivalent of a Dan Brown novel--it is prime binge-watching entertainment. Each of the debut season’s 15 episodes is packed with more epic moments and shocking twists than the average human being’s entire lifespan. All of the characters are drop-dead gorgeous, constantly having hot sex with each other and hiding enough dirty laundry to fill several laundromats. It’s all a bit trashy and soapy, but unlike one of my favorite new television shows of this past year, Empire, it doesn’t seem to know it; How to Get Away with Murder plays it dead serious as opposed to high camp. My jaw was hanging open in disbelief so often while watching the show that my face may now permanently resemble that of Pac-Man.

How to Get Away with Murder’s main asset, apart from its insanity, is its central actress, the Tony-winning and Oscar-nominated Viola Davis. Like many women of a certain age, Davis seems to have realized that there is more substantial material for female performers on television than at the multiplex--and in this case, thank goodness, because she is excellent. Davis plays Annalise Keating, a tough-as-nails law professor and criminal defense lawyer who handpicks five students from her first-year class to assist her on numerous cases throughout the year. These students, known as the Keating Five, work alongside Annalise in her home office, in addition to icy blond associate Bonnie (Liza Weil) and bad-boy-with-a-beard Frank (Charlie Weber), who does all of the dirty work for the firm and none of the legal work. Annalise is complicated and often unlikeable; she’s willing to do whatever it takes to win a case for her client, even when she knows they are guilty and probably deserve punishment. She carries herself with confidence in false eyelashes and curve-hugging dresses, and happens to be having a steamy affair with a police detective--though her psychology professor husband has his share of dalliances, too. To see a 50-year-old actress of color get the opportunity to play such a smart, strong and sexy lead character is an all too rare thing, and Davis makes the most of the opportunity.

The show’s overarching plot revolves around a murder that takes place in the pilot episode and is frequently flashed forward and back to throughout the first season. The reveal of the victim is one of the first of countless shocking twists, so I won’t identify them here, suffice to say that it leads to massive drama and upheaval in the lives of Annalise and the Keating Five. While the murder mystery comprises the show’s overall arc, the individual episodes tend to focus on specific cases that Annalise is handling, making How to Get Away with Murder a show that feels both serial and episodic. The way the show handles the practice of law did not feel terribly believable to this law firm employee, but that doesn’t take away from the entertainment value of watching Annalise rip apart opposing counsel in the courtroom.

There is one major way in which How to Get Away with Murder deviates from the Dan Brown recipe for mindless, delicious popcorn entertainment: when the writing isn’t solely focused on excitement and escapism, it manages to surprise you with its insights into race, gender and class conflicts in America. The Keating Five--not to the mention the show’s various lawyers, judges, cops, clients and other supporting characters--are all incredibly diverse in a way that feels natural, not forced. (What doesn’t feel natural is the show’s Philadelphia setting, which feels like an afterthought. Unless I see either the Eagles logo or Ben Franklin’s face on every building, I will not believe you are actually in Philly.) One particular standout in the ensemble is the confident and ruthless Connor Walsh (Jack Falahee, in a star-making performance), who frequently uses his sex appeal to solve cases. Connor is gay, but without any of the usual stereotypical signposts to indicate his sexuality; rather, he is just a man who loves to have sex with men, and does so often, both for his own enjoyment and for the sake of the firm. When he ends up falling for the geeky IT guy that he originally sleeps with just to take advantage of his hacking skills, you’ll root for them to make it work. His fellow students are aware of his sexuality but none of them judge him for it--not even Asher Millstone (Matt McGorry), a famous judge’s son and wannabe frat boy. In a less progressive program, Asher would probably be written as a homophobe in order to create drama with Connor, but here he just congratulates him on getting laid and makes sex jokes with him the same way he would any other straight guy. It’s refreshing and yet it should not be--it should just be the norm.

How to Get Away with Murder is nonstop fun that still manages to be thought-provoking now and then. Even in the show’s most unbelievably ridiculous moments, Davis and her co-stars are guaranteed to keep you hooked on their exploits, whether it be because of talent, their sex appeal or a combination of the two. I am already looking forward to seeing what the hell the show could possibly subject these people to next.

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES

The first season of How to Get Away with Murder contains 15 episodes spread across four discs, as well as a behind the scenes featurette, bloopers, deleted scenes and a music video featuring Asher.

"How to Get Away with Murder: Season 1" is on sale August 4, 2015 and is rated tv-14. Drama. Written by Peter Nowalk, Rob Fresco, Erika Green Swafford, Tracey A. Bellomo, Michael Foley, Warren Hsu Leonard, Doug Stockstill et. al. . Starring Jack Falahee, Katie Findlay, Viola Davis.

Sep
06
2015
Lee Jutton • Staff Writer

Lee attended NYU for Film & TV Production, but she now works mostly in PR. Her primary obsessions in life are Doctor Who, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Arsenal F.C. When not writing about things she's watched, she's running or kickboxing in preparation for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. 

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