Viola Davis Shines in ABC’s Addictive, Flawed ‘How To Get Away With Murder’

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How to Get Away With Murder is being heavily promoted as a Shonda Rhimes production, even by the network. ABC is betting big on an all-Shonda night that includes Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, but Murder was actually created by Peter Nowalk (who has written for those other two shows), with Rhimes acting as Executive Producer. Promoting it with Rhimes’ name is a surefire way to get viewers to tune in, though, especially because we’ve hit a point where any of her shows is practically guaranteed to be successful. The pilot episode isn’t exactly a great success itself, but it’s very good and definitely entertaining.

How to Get Away With Murder, which is the season’s worst title to have to repeatedly write out, centers on an eclectic group of law students who get entangled in covering up a murder that they may have even committed. That’s the central mystery at hand and the show’s biggest hook — the pilot immediately plunges into the darkness by opening on the cover-up before jumping to the more normal classroom scenes.

Despite the title, somehow the murder isn’t the most important or engaging thing about this show. Sure, the mystery will build and evolve throughout the season. As more details are revealed about the criminal act and about the victim (who is revealed at the end of the episode, in what comes as a true surprise), it will surely become one of the most discussed and debated plots on television. Thursdays on Twitter will be unbearable for those who don’t watch — or, even worse, those in unfortunate time zones who are desperately trying to avoid spoilers. In the pilot episode, however, the best part and the main reason to keep watching is Viola Davis.

Davis plays Annalise Keating, a chilling law professor who puts the fear of God in all of her students. They are terrified and intimidated by her in the classroom but also in awe of her smarts and talent in the courtroom. Davis plays Keating with a remarkable terror, not just as one of those “tough” professors you avoid but as someone who could make you literally shake with a carefully worded — and delivered — scolding. While Keating is no “angry black woman,” she sure is an amazingly complex character with damaging secrets, shady actions, an aura of sheer ruthlessness, and no desire to haggle over moralistic dilemmas. It doesn’t matter what’s right and wrong — as long as people understand that she’s right. As Keating, Davis is fierce as hell. She commands the screen, showing up everyone who shares a scene with her. Davis demands so much attention that even viewers will sit up straighter when she talks, absently hoping to impress a fictional character.

How to Get Away With Murder is not a law procedural, nor is it a simplistic legal drama. You need to pay attention to it; my bad habit of drifting off during digital screeners (the Internet!) meant I had to watch it twice. The first episode is purposely confusing and jumps back and forth in time between the students’ first days in class and the central crime. There are jump cuts and quick flashes that interrupt scenes, more than one Rhimes-esque surprising reveal, and a whole mess of characters. With the exception of wide-eyed Wes Gibbins (Alfred Enoch, who is also fantastic), we barely learn anything about the main group of law students. They fit in neat boxes, making it hard to connect with them or really care about their trouble. Fortunately, How To Get Away With Murder will definitely remain on the air for long enough to teach us more about each one, and hopefully transform them from sketchy outlines into well-developed characters.

There is no doubt that the pilot is flawed and not as strong as it could be, but it’s still one of the more immediately entertaining pilots of the season, and it certainly knows how to reel in viewers. People are going to tune in because of the Shonda Rhimes association but stay for the actual story. Even if Murder never becomes perfect, it will definitely be addictive.