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“How to Get Away with Murder” Gets Away with Risky Character; Review

When looking through a commercial lens, one would have a hard time identifying the risk associated with ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder.”

Executive produced by Shonda Rhimes, airing on the same night as Rhimes’ hits “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” marketed aggressively and in possession of the same broad, procedural-meets-soap approach that rendered those shows infinitely endearing and immensely successful, it is network television’s surest bet this season.

When one switches his perspective to a creative one, he finds that the series, which premieres at 10PM on September 25, is anything but risk averse.

No, the fundamental construct is not daring.  The juxtaposition of a present day murder mystery with a flashback to the involved parties’ early days in professor Annalise Keating’s (Viola Davis) applied “How to Get Away with Murder” law class is almost comically obvious.  Celebrating the use of ruthless, unethical tactics to protect potentially guilty clients–even when at the expense of innocent victims–is a path too well-trodden for the word “cliched” to be sufficiently applied.

And while the show and its dialogue cannot quite rival “Grey’s” and “Scandal” in the swagger department, its energetic, frank execution assures it remains very much on brand with Thursday’s veteran ShondaLand dramas.

Where “How To Get Away with Murder” deviates–and thus assumes an unexpected level of creative risk–is within the realm of its central character.

A brash, unforgiving, yet brilliant legal mind, Annalise Keating simultaneously serves as a force of fear and inspiration for the student characters.  Always prepared to judge, always armed with a rebuttal and rarely willing to show vulnerability outside of a situation she has calculated, the memorable, commanding Keating functions as the show’s point of separation from the world of dramatic legal cliche.

But she also risks obscuring the show’s emotional center from an audience that wants to actively relate rather than passively observe.

In possession of the endless confidence and compelling presence required of any great anti-hero, Keating nonetheless lacks what television tradition tells us is considerably more important: a clearly defined set of values.

Ruthless, unethical, mean and even monstrous protagonists are not simply present in the world of television; they are expected.  From obnoxious, drug-addicted doctors to murderous meth dealers to international criminals to serial killers to shady lawyers, those who dare to be bad are sure to be liked in the world of television.

To say a character must possess a large, warm, giving heart to forge a connection with television viewers is to fundamentally ignore the characters whom audiences truly revere.  This is a world in which Anna Gunn, the actress behind Skyler White, had to repeatedly defend the morality and likability of her character while Walter White was relentlessly worshiped as a hero.

What characters like Walter White, Greg House, Dexter Morgan and Raymond Reddington do possess, however, is a relatable sense of purpose and an overt moral compass.  What they do is not always righteous or in the best interest of the greater good.  How they do it is rarely tolerable, let alone admirable, to the average viewer.

But the answer to why they do it — and why they can control themselves before going too far — overcomes the cruel, unethical horror associated with their actions.  On shows like “The Practice” and “Boston Legal,” the otherwise-righteous lawyers would resort to questionable tactics in order to protect their innocent  clients and produce a more just overall legal system.  On “House,” the titular doctor’s irreverence was tied to his burning desire to save lives.  “Dexter” killed people, but he directed his onslaught at criminals and put the needs of his beloved family members above all.

Understanding the why of the situation is the key to forgiving–and ultimately accepting–the horror a lead anti-hero might introduce into the world.  Supplementing that character’s sense of purpose with a razor sharp sense of humor then elevates viewer acceptance into admiration.

Keating lacks those qualities.  She is quick on her feet from an conversational standpoint, but she never says anything particularly groundbreaking or enlightening.  She is committed to victory and demonstrating her superiority, but she never sufficiently establishes why winning is so essential.

At various points in the premiere, Keating will chastise her students, employees and even clients over the contribution their negligence and mistakes are making towards an unsuccessful day in court.  She makes it very clear that she cannot tolerate that level of failure, but she–and the show–fails to elaborate further on that position.

Desiring perfection is noble, but it is not a particularly relatable perspective for an audience conditioned to see the world as imperfect.  To truly give Keating a pass on her willingness to demean others and bend the laws she knows and teaches so passionately, viewers will need a deeper, more compelling motivation than a generic desire to be perfect.

However compelling as an overall presence, Keating does not offer a compelling justification for her behavior.  She, in fact, ridicules the application of moral righteousness to the legal system.  Her job is to get her client off — not get her client off because she is innocent or because the legal system requires perfection from the defense and prosecution in order to promote the best sense of justice.

There is no “white hat” in the world of “How to get Away with Murder.”  There is no objective sense of good and bad.  Keating is guided by a need for dominance rather than a need for righteousness.

In a way, the character’s attitude is more realistic than that projected by the typical anti-hero.  Portrayed with depth and intensity by the talented, charismatic Viola Davis, Annalise Keating emerges as a disillusioned, fundamentally imperfect but infinitely pragmatic realist.  She knows she cannot individually change the world.  And she has no interest in diffusing situations with clever, witty wordplay.  Her answer to any strife, challenge or adversity is to overcome it — for no other reason than because it needs to be overcome.

So honest, believable and grounded thanks to a well-developed position in the narrative and Davis’ fervent connection to the role, Keating functions as the unique, memorable presence a series like this needs to survive.  She gives every scene an edge, and provides every fellow cast member with an opportunity for building an instant rapport and thus an instant position within the narrative.

But as one for whom lightheartedness is foreign and righteousness is inconceivable, she, herself, remains someone for viewers to watch rather than someone with whom to connect.  There is no series without Davis’ Annalise Keating, but there will be no emotional loyalty to Annalise Keating.

She might represent the show’s central calling card, but she is not its heart.  She is not the net that will keep audiences viewing–and caring–over the course of the season.

For that to happen, aw students Wes (Alfred Enoch), Connor (Jack Falahee), Laurel (Karla Souza) and Michaela (Aja Naomi King) will need to effectively establish themselves as human, motivated, vulnerable entities struggling to maintain their identities, values and perspectives in Annalise Keating’s world.  They cannot function as narrative diversions or passive onlookers.  If they are not creating an interplay between their own behaviors and philosophies and those of Keating, they are dooming the show to be one of great concept and style but weak resonance and importance.

The significant amount of screen time given to the students (particularly Enoch’s Wes) suggests the “How To Get Away with Murder” team understands the important role those characters play.  The inclusion of the four in the serialized murder mystery all but confirms the show’s recognition of their value.  Following Thursday’s premiere, “How to Get Away with Murder” must assure its execution lives up to the promise of what the premiere suggests.

Written by Brian Cantor

Brian Cantor is the editor-in-chief for Headline Planet. He has been a leading reporter in the music, movie, television and sporting spaces since 2002.

Brian's reporting has been cited by major websites like BuzzFeed, Billboard, the New Yorker and The Fader -- and shared by celebrities like Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj.

Contact Brian at brian.cantor[at]


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