Starring Viola Davis
My rating: ★★ 1/2 stars
Outrageous, campy fun marred by slipshod writing.
In an era of quality, prestige dramas, How to Get Away with Murder is an unabashedly outrageous, kitschy throwback, with no pretensions to verisimilitude or serious thought. Part soap opera, part mystery, and part courtroom drama, it veers wildly from one plot development to another, with little pause for reflection, which is probably a good thing because any prolonged examination would reveal the entire thing to be ludicrous.
Viola Davis stars as preeminent defense attorney and law school professor Annalise Keating, who takes five of her students on as interns in the law firm she runs out of her home. Soon, she and the Keating five, along with her shy associate, Bonnie (Liza Weir), and her factotum, Frank (Charlie Weber), get involved in the defense of Rebecca Sutter (Katie Findlay), who is accused of murdering her friend Lila. Complicating matters is that Annalise’s husband, Sam (Tom Verica), was having an affair with Lila and may be the killer himself. In the pilot episode, four of the Keating five are shown in flash forwards to have been involved in the death of someone; at the end of the episode, that someone is revealed to be Sam. Thus, early on, the show introduces not one, but two whodunits. As if ten major characters weren’t enough, the series also features Annalise’s extramarital pastime, Nate (Billy Brown), a police detective who is soon kicked off the force due to Annalise’s actions.
The problem with the series is the writing, which is so concerned with creating OMG! moments that it ignores little things like theme, consistency, and character motivation. Of course, these are not “little things.” These are the things that drive good storytelling. I’m amazed the resolution to the mysteries manages to be as coherent as it is given the writers’ preference for twists over truth.
The show benefits from having Davis at the center of this insanity. Her strength helps rein in the chaos into something that, miraculously, is less than ridiculous. She’s better than the material and manages to elevate it without letting it drag her down. She’s helped by her supporting cast, and credit must be given to the casting directors who found relatively unknown performers who could play off of Davis.
One place where the writing is strong is in the creation of the supporting characters. Even with this large number of characters—large for a show of this limited scope—the writers create characters whose backgrounds, goals, and styles are clearly distinct. This feat is particularly impressive for the Keating five, a group that can be referred to collectively and share the traits of being young, brilliant, ambitious first-year law students. There’s the deceptively gentle Wes (Alfred Enoch), whose kindness disguises a troubled past and a dark, decisive inner core. Then, the prim and proper Michaela (Aja Naomi King) creates an icy and driven exterior to mask her fragility and low self-esteem. With these two characters, the writers seem almost to be approaching a theme—that of outward appearances used to cover up an inner reality. One of the best scenes of the season—where Annalise removes her wig and make-up (episode 4, “Let’s Get to Scooping”)—plays into that notion as well. But it’s never developed into anything as coherent as a theme, and it’s not picked up by the other characters.
The first of the Keating five to stand out is the smarmy, ruthless Connor (Jack Falahee), whose actions early on are the sketchiest of the students’. He grows into a caring human being, almost against his will. This change is particularly apparent in his interactions with his sometime boyfriend, IT specialist Oliver (Conrad Ricamora), whom Connor meets when he uses Oliver for his computer knowledge. Unfortunately, Ricamora is in eight of the season’s fifteen episodes, making him ineligible under the new rules to be nominated for the Emmy for Best Guest Performance, an honor he would have at least been in consideration for under the old rules. (Under the new rules, guest performers must appear in fewer than 50% of a show’s episodes.) Ricamora is heartbreakingly sweet and vulnerable as Oliver, who sadly knows all too well that he’s being exploited.
The member of the Keating five who never really comes together as a character is Laurel (Karla Souza). The audience never understands what drives her. The one scene where we see her at home, rebelling against her wealthy family, gives us little insight into her. Oddly, her character seems more coherent at the beginning of the season, when she is the most unassuming of the Keating five. Yet, as the season progresses, the writers seem to lose the sense of what makes Laurel an individual.
The final member of the Keating five, and the one who is not present at Sam’s death, is the awkward Asher (Matt McGorry). Not being involved in the murder makes Asher, initially, the least accessible of the law students. We don’t see him desperately plunged into a dire situation and, thus, have little reason to root for him. It’s only in the last few episodes that Asher’s awkwardness begins to seem endearing rather than creepy.
Unfortunately, the writers fail to let these characters dictate the action of the plot. Things happen to them, not because of them. Everyone, even Annalise, spends much of his or her time reacting to events rather than instigating them. Even the revelation of the murderer of Lila at the end of the final episode is not brought about by the characters. The audience sees the murder played out in a flashback that is unrelated to any particular character’s discovery or revelation. As for the identity of the murderer, I figured it out about four episodes ahead of time when I noticed that one character was becoming subtly more important and more nuanced. I do credit the writers for choosing a character who makes sense as the guilty party, rather than an outlandish choice made to garner another OMG! reaction on social media. The identity of Sam’s killer, which is revealed earlier in the season, is also a natural choice (although his identity is telegraphed more obviously in the weeks leading up to the episode where we see the killing).
As a mystery, How to Get Away with Murder works. The identity of the culprits is not too easy to guess but not out-of-left-field. As a courtroom drama, however, the series is a disaster. The blatant disregard the series shows to anything resembling actual courtroom procedure caused me to cringe more than a few times. The cases that Annalise handles distract from the main story arc. However, without these cases, Annalise and the rest of her firm would have little to do week after week. The series needs to work on better integrating the episode stories with the main arc.
I also had to cringe at the introduction of Annalise’s mother, Ophelia (Cicely Tyson). So much of the episode involving her visit (episode 13, “Mama’s Here Now”) is riddled with writing clichés. The character of Ophelia is merely a variation on the formula of “folksy, crotchety old person.” Her revelations about Annalise’s past could have come from a writing seminar on “How to Give Your Character a Troubled Backstory.” Yet, Tyson manages, by the end of the episode, to make the material into something powerful, albeit not as powerful as it thinks it is.
And that’s the key problem with the show. It doesn’t recognize that it’s nothing more than melodramatic fun. If it had any sense of irony or self-knowledge, it might be a better show (or it might just be self-aware, painfully so). Until it learns to have fun with its more outlandish aspects, the show will be a near miss, well-intentioned but slightly ridiculous.