How To Get Away With Murder is as close to a guaranteed hit as any show is at the beginning of its season—it’s a Shonda Rhimes outfit, after all. Even though Rhimes is just the executive producer of How To Get Away With Murder, not its creator and showrunner—those honors belong to Peter Nowalk—her fingerprints are all over the show, from style to casting. Rhimes has created two of the top 10 most-watched television shows currently on-air: the megahits Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, whose numbers both seem immune to critical reception or age. Now How To Get Away With Murder is joining both those shows on Thursday nights, creating a three-hour bloc of television that is entirely the provenance of one very successful producer—one with a demonstrated passion for multiethnic casts and storytelling that crosses from the superego to the id with frightening ease. ABC must be hoping that Thursday nights will become, as Rhimes’ production company’s name suggests, Shondaland.
Rhimes’ success is so ironclad that How To Get Away With Murder’s fate isn’t hard to divine: The drama will almost certainly make it to multiple seasons. Perhaps not as many as its older sister Grey’s Anatomy, and with fewer Emmy nominations than middle sister Scandal. But it has a bright future. That means the show has more time to make its pieces fall into place—it doesn’t have to be defined by fear of mid-season cancellation. (In fact, surviving until mid-season would be a mark of success, considering ABC executives are promising a limited first-season run of “15 or 16” episodes.) But you wouldn’t know that from the pilot, which uses a framing device to plunge the viewer right into the climax of the episode without bothering to explain what’s happening: a group of students burying a body, late at night, during an all-campus night of revelry. Rhimes is not one for caution or restraint, and the story jumps to the forefront from the get-go, with the frenetic, sexy melodrama reminiscent of Scandal at the height of its powers.
The pilot also doesn’t bother holding back with introducing the cast of characters—How To Get Away With Murder has what feels like dozens, ranging from students at the fictional Middleton University to middle-aged professionals in law and academia. The pilot introduces them all so quickly that most barely have any establishing moments of screen time—but that’s enough to slot them into their roles of naïf, lothario, over-achiever, or idealist, as the case may be.
At their center is Viola Davis, playing the ruthless law professor Annalise Keating. Much like Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, How To Get Away With Murder pivots around a large ensemble cast held together by a charismatic female protagonist with secrets of her own. What’s unique about Annalise, compared to heroines like Olivia Pope, Meredith Grey, Miranda Bailey, and Addison Montgomery, is that the law professor is under no illusions about trying to “do the right thing” or “be a good person.” And that, ultimately, is How To Get Away With Murder’s most unique quality (well, that and the wordy title): moral ambiguity, as performed not just by a woman but a black woman. Davis’ latest television turn comes on the heels of an Academy Award nomination for 2012’s The Help, and this is the type of role she’s rarely ever been able to play, as detailed in a recent New York Times Magazine profile. And her casting is indicative of How To Get Away With Murder’s transformation from a generic legal procedural to a Shondaland joint.
All this is why it’s frustrating, in the show’s first episode, to discover that Davis’ character Annalise is almost marginal, the shadowy figure everyone is trying not to disappoint. When she does appear on the scene, Davis makes the most of it, with a cold look or two, a chilling line delivery, and an incredible ability to make the most out of sharply tailored suits. But she’s never on screen enough. And that means the episode has to barrel forward solely on the weight of questionable legal reasoning and the doe-eyed likability of the first-year law students, which is naturally a bit of a mixed bag. That creates a pilot that is scattered and at times uneven, underscored with splashy cynicism about the rule of law that feels imported from Scandal (without that show’s white-hat idealism).
Where the pilot succeeds is with Alfred Enoch’s character, Wes Gibbins, who is as much of the protagonist as Annalise is, at least in this first episode. Enoch is best known for playing Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter films, and in How To Get Away With Murder, he’s taller and lankier but just as innocent as a Hogwarts first year. As bits and pieces of his backstory come to light, he becomes a character who’s easy to root for—and his winning eagerness is the counterbalance to Annalise’s forbidding majesty. Where the pilot really pops is when both characters are in the same room—the unstable combination of matter and anti-matter.
How To Get Away With Murder faces some of the same issues many Shondaland properties have faced: a weakness for melodramatic plotting that sacrifices emotional complexity for clichés and mere complication. But it has excellent bones, grounded in an outstanding pedigree and Rhimes’ demonstrated ability to keep an audience hooked from scandal to scandal. It’s not perfect, but it’s never boring.