Friday, September 26, 2014

Pilot Review: How to Get Away with Murder

How to Get Away with Murder (Thursdays at 10:00 on ABC)

Much has already been made of the new series from Shonda Rhimes' production company, Shondaland, thanks mostly to a clueless, shit-stirring feature in The New York Times. A lot of the hype is justified, because How to Get Away with Murder is exactly what ABC has been promising in its heavy promotion: instantly addictive, fast-paced fun.

On their first day of law school, an entire class is drawn into the murder trial of a woman accused of killing her husband. Their professor, defense lawyer Annalise Keating (Oscar nominee Viola Davis), uses the trial as a way to both create her own defense and to test her fledgling students, four of whom she will take on as interns. (If this sounds familiar, that's because it's about half the plot of Legally Blonde.) Additionally, the top student will receive a trophy that can be returned to Keating to get out of taking an exam... the same trophy that, three months later, will be used as a murder weapon.

For a show with a premise that has so much camp potential, Murder takes itself a little too seriously for its own good. Rarely is the audience given a chance to breathe in Peter Nowalk's (Scandal, Grey's Anatomy) pilot, moving quickly from future to present and back, all with clipped, fast di. alogue. Michael Offer's direction is similarly frenetic. Scenes are always changing, morphing, the cameras panning and pushing. This show is certainly never boring, but it's also kind of exhausting. There are so many characters and so many plots, in two different timelines, that it's hard to keep track of where and when we are. Still, the breakneck speed at which the pilot moves is exhilarating at times, particularly in the final minutes. That's when that "instantly addictive" thing I mentioned earlier kicks in. The murder victim in the "three months later" plot is revealed, and it's so unexpected that it puts everything previous in a different perspective.

The characters, unfortunately, aren't as memorable or exciting, aside from Annalise. Viola Davis takes no prisoners in her portrayal of the ruthless lawyer. She's intimidating in the courtroom, frightening in the classroom, and threatening in her personal life. Davis plays all of these personality traits to perfection, and she even gets us to feel some sympathy for Annalise during a momentary breakdown in front of a student. She's clearly being pulled in too many directions, and that one scene humanizes her just enough so that Annalise doesn't become a villain. She's a round character, a real person with real flaws The other characters, however, aren't up to Davis's standard. None of the students, of which we follow five, are particularly notable, except for maybe Wes (Alfred Enoch), who is being painted as the show's naive, moral center. Orange is the New Black's Matt McGorry has a lot of fun as the most pigheaded of the interns, though he sometimes crosses the line into caricature, and Jack Falahee gets to play the most intriguing student character in Connor, a pretty-boy with a secret shame. There's a seemingly endless revolving door of other supporting players introduced as well: Annalise's associates, Frank and Bonnie, the former of whom has a penchant for sleeping with the students; Wes's strange neighbor, Rebecca; and Annalise's husband, Sam, and detective lover, Nate. That's eleven characters introduced in the pilot, and that's not including those involved in the court case of the week. It's too much, and I think Nowalk would have been smart to make a few cuts.

Even with the overcrowding of characters and the deadly seriousness with which the show is delivered, How to Get Away with Murder still manages to be a good time. Viola Davis is giving a fearsome performance that shouldn't be missed, and the story picks up just enough steam by episode's end to ensure viewers will be back next week. Let's just hope it doesn't buckle under the weight of all its individual parts.

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