The main stage for How to Get Away With Murder is a university lecture hall full of bright, eager, first-year, first-day law students.
Defense Attorney Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) is the brilliant Criminal Law Professor we all love to love and love to hate. Fairly bristling with a bravados that provokes both fear and respect from her youthful charges, she lets them know, right off, that hers is not a classroom of theory, discussion and debate; rather she believes in practical application.
“Unlike many of my colleagues, I will not be teaching you how to study the law or theorize about it, but rather how to practice it… in a courtroom, like a real lawyer,” Keating tells them.
She begins by handing them an actual case—one that’s hers—and charges them to come up with a defense to match or surpass her own. It’s a contest and the prize is a plum: a position in her firm for whomever comes up with the most innovative or impressive alternative defense.
“Don’t play for safety. It’s the most dangerous thing in the world.” Hugh Walpole
The students are in. No one wants to be left behind, but there are a few hundred in the class and only four available positions. They want to do well…for themselves, but more than that; they want to do well for her.
With such an air of complete self-assuredness it’s understood, before we see her take one step into the courtroom, Keating wins way more than she loses. Ms. Davis is strong, direct and uncompromising as the professor and one gets why she engenders immediate loyalty from her students.
As an attorney wanna-be, it’s not enough to be like Keating. One of the student’s whispers she wants to “be” Keating.
On the rare occasion she finds herself on the down side of a verdict she’s sure to be as hard on herself as she is those around her. This isn’t shown in the debut episode, but there are hints at it.
Because of course, it wouldn’t be much of a show if there wasn’t a “but.” Her personal life is too muddy for comfort. Her relationship with her husband almost seems like an agreed upon subterfuge and an uncomfortable encounter with a student borders on creepiness.
Oh yes and then there’s the murder. No spoilers here as we’re made aware there’s been one from the top of the show. What we don’t know is who, what or why. This murder is, in a sense, extracurricular credit for us, the viewing public. It’s outside of the classroom assignment and we’ll be kept guessing through the entire season, I’m sure.
Season One, Episode One—The Wrap Up: The setup is not unlike the approach taken with Grey’s Anatomy, which followed a group of interns from their first day on the job at Seattle Grace; a well-established teaching hospital with a first-rate surgical staff, complete with egos to match.
It charged onto our TV screens in 2005 and had everyone’s tongues wagging around the water cooler from day one. It’s made careers, reinvigorated others and creator/producer Shonda Rhime’s name became one with the household.
Murder doesn’t have the same visceral punch as Grey’s. The premise—learning about the law through the trials and travails of students acting on behalf of a demanding law prof—is clever but the first episode lacked a certain freshness; hardly noticeable due to Michael Offer’s brisk direction and the show’s sharp editing.
The filmmakers (some Grey’s alum) have given us another winning factor: characters to either identify with or like. Ms. Davis, certainly delivers a quality performance. And Murder exec producer Rhimes, with creator/writer Peter Nowalk gifted her a terrific cast to work with: Wesley Gibbins (Alfred Enoch), Connor Walsh (Jack Falahee), Michaela Pratt (Aja Naomi King), and Laurel Castillo (Karla Souza). These four are the core of the student team who stumble upon the horrific something that binds them. Individually unique, they make for an entertaining, complex pack. I was already rooting for them by the end; even Connor whose brashness has got to be hiding something cool.
There is much to steer away from here in order to keep the secrets safe for your viewing enjoyment, but this is one to watch and keep tabs on. Subsequent strong storylines to support an excellent cast will keep it in good stead for Thursday Night Rhime’s triple featurettes: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and Murder.
Also in the acting lineup are Detective Nate Lahey (Billy Brown), Rebecca Dixon (Katie Findlay), Asher Millstone (Matt McGorry), Frank Delfino (Charlie Weber), Bonnie Winterbottom (Liza Weil).
Watch How to Get Away with Murder, Thursday, September 25, 10pm, ET/PT on ABC.