Already one of the most hotly anticipated shows this season, ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder got a big-time PR boost when New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley wrote an ass-backwards critique that dubbed one Shonda Rhimes — and the power-suited heroines wrought in her own image — an “angry black woman.” Oopsie. Not a smart statement on so many levels. While Stanley's purpose was to praise Rhimes for subverting stereotypes, instead, she managed to reinforce them, coming off as racist and research-inept. And in the end, it was a review that rarely talked around the show in question, which is ridiculous. Because, as the season premiere proves, this will definitely be a show that has people talking.
Murder is that delicious, bittersweet final bite in ABC’s three-course ShondaLand feast — a Thursday-night lineup that features Grey’s Anatomy, then Scandal, and then finally, the frenetic new thriller (exec-produced by Rhimes, but written and created by Peter Nowalk). Try to keep up, because the premiere is breakneck, laying a lot of groundwork in multiple arenas in hectic, spliced-together layers of storytelling.
A bucolic Philadelphia university. In the frantic first few minutes of Murder, scenes of a rager right out of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are interspersed with those of a ragtag team of law-school students caught at the scene of the crime, and they definitely can’t agree on how, exactly, they’re going to cover their tracks. Bottom line: heads, they get the body; tails, they leave it where it is. But we won’t know what actually happens for quite a while. Because first we need to meet the woman at the center of all the mayhem.
Oscar-nodded actress Viola Davis is law professor Annalise Keating, cut very much from the Rhimes cloth: impeccably dressed, no-nonsense, the best at what she does — in a word, flawless. Leather-clad and all business, she’s teaching a criminal law course she likes to call “How to Get Away With Murder.” Because really, that’s exactly what it is. As is to be expected, Davis’s Annalise is totally badass, and she’s the one who gets all the quippy one-liners. To be noted: There are not nearly as many quippy one-liners as there are in other Rhimes shows, which comes as a relief here. After all, murder is serious business.
She immediately zooms in on five wannabe lawyers as standouts: Connor, Lauren, Mikaela, Asher, and the utterly confused transfer student Wesley. We’ll dub these newbies the Fearful Fivesome, because that’s exactly what they are.
Things get intense right quick as she drills the students — but that’s not quite enough for Annalise, who takes them all to her office to depose her current client, a mistress accused, of course, of attempted murder. Their assignment: come up with a plan of action for the defense. Whoever comes up with the best case gets a shot at one of four internships with Annalise’s firm. And not only that, the best one wins a statue of Lady Justice — what she dubs an immunity idol, a get-out-of-exam-free pass. Of course this will be important.
In class, Annalise schools them in defense. Step one: Discredit the witnesses. Step two: Introduce a new suspect. Step three: Bury the evidence. That’s how you get away with murder.
The students quickly put what they’ve learned to good use. At one of the court dates, suck-up Mikaela gets a leg up by providing information that discredits the witness — proving she’s color-blind and couldn’t tell blue pills from yellow ones. Then ruthless Connor gets the scoop by seducing one of the IT guys at the company where the incident went down, getting a critical email that implies that the victim’s partner has motive. Simpering Lauren hides in the bathroom, where she witnesses a suspicious interaction between the wife and the mistress, implying that perhaps they both had something to do with it. But when she tells Frank, Annalise’s minion, he tries to blow it off — because he already knew. He berates her instead, telling her she’s only there to build up her getting-a-husband résumé. All in a plot to seduce her? Hmmm, not quite working from me, but we all have our issues.
Anyway, it’s Wesley who really scores points with Annalise when he catches her in flagrante on her desk with a man she’s clearly not supposed to be with. Because: flashback! At a party, the gang all meets Annalise’s psychology-professor husband, Sam, who is decidedly not a muscular Tyson Beckford look-alike. (At least from the glimpse we catch of him in the dark!)
A falsely weepy Annalise’s excuse: She and her husband have been talking about having a kid, and the pressure is just too, too much. She thanks Wes for keeping it between them — and she can be very convincing.
All of this is interspersed with glimpses of headlines around campus: A student named Lila Stangard has been missing for days, and the cops have been investigating with little success. And Wesley has been having increasingly odd interactions with his neighbor, Rebecca, who reams him repeatedly, then apologizes with a bottle of whiskey.
Back to the big picture: burying the body. By now, the observant viewer might note that one of the fearful fivesome – Asher Millstone (played by Matt McGorry, who rocks as sweet cop Bennett on Orange Is the New Black) has long been MIA. Hmmmm, wonder where he could have gone? After all, the bloodied Lady Justice is clearly a murder weapon, and Asher did tend to run his mouth a lot. Maybe someone finally put him out of his misery?
Back to court. The mistress is headed to prison — the prosecution found video of her buying the pills that could have been the weapon. She’s totally ruining Annalise’s case. So Annalise pulls out her ace: Detective Nate Lahey (Billy Brown, who, on closer look, is definitely more stately and world-weary than Tyson), the man she was hooking up with the night Wes caught her in the act. She questions him about the very night he was with her, asking him about his whereabouts, wondering innocently if he was home with his wife, who has cancer. Ouch. Then she asks a pointed question: Has he known anyone in his department to doctor video surveillance? Caught, he gives her the answer she wants. And she wins her case.
Here’s where we really see the Shonda-ism playing out. Annalise is everything we love in an anti-hero: smart, cunning, vindictive. And completely intoxicating.
In class again, Annalise announces the winners of the coveted internships: Connor, Asher, Mikaela, Lauren, and — in the end, one more, since their workload has grown — Wes Gibbons. But Wes doesn’t want it — not if the reason he’s getting it is because he could expose Annalise’s secrets. She warns him to watch what she says. This moment determines his future, and Annalise offers up a classic zinger: “You can spend it in a corporate office wrapped in contracts and hitting on chubby paralegals before putting a gun in your mouth. Or you can join my firm and become someone you actually like.” No-brainer there.
Breaking news: A woman’s body is found in the water tank at the Kappa Kappa Theta sorority house. Seems this discovery has a few people riled: the missing girl’s boyfriend, Griffin. His apparent new girlfriend (and Wes’s neighbor!), Rebecca. And none other than Annalise’s doting husband, fretting about his student. Annalise’s take? “I bet you the boyfriend did it.” But which one?
In the end: Our Fearful Foursome — did you see how that shifted? — pulls out the oil and lights the match. But before the body goes up in flames, we catch a good glimpse. It’s Sam.
Game on! In true Shonda fashion, Murder leaves us hanging just when we think we’ve got things figured out, and it’s going to be delicious trying to unravel the endgame while reveling in the juicy drama between master and students. There are no clear-cut good guys or bad guys here, which makes it hard for us to get our footing, but also makes playing the game all the more fun.