Shonda Rhimes has accomplished a rare feat. Not only has she created three shows that are all on the air this fall, but ABC has also handed over Thursday nights to her. A primary reason has to do with money, of course: while Grey’s Anatomy begins its 11th season 24 September, a long run by any standard, Scandal launches its fourth as its audience is still expanding, also an unusual accomplishment.
Another reason may be cultural. As the new TV season is the most diverse in history, Rhimes’ old shows and the one, How to Get Away with Murder are at the forefront of that “trend.” It’s also expanding the impact of what seems an even more powerful trend, which is to say, Shondaland. How to Get Away with Murder (created by Grey’s veteran Peter Nowalk, executive produced by Rhimes) seems aimed to capture the essence of both of the shows that precede it on Thursdays. Replace the hospital on Grey’s with a courtroom and populate it with a similar mix of diverse and deeply flawed characters. Add in a “fixer,” who in this case is a high-powered defense attorney and law professor Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), instead of Scandal’s political operative Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington). Sprinkle in the promise of salacious events to come. Mix it all together and hope that the Twitter-verse takes notice.
Rhimes is one of the few African Americans running a TV show in Hollywood these days. By casting Davis, Rhimes has doubled the number of network shows fronted by a black woman this fall, with Scandal being the other. The ensemble includes three more African Americans, a Latina, and a gay man. While it is unfortunate that Rhimes’ work is such an anomaly that these sorts of numbers still warrant inclusion in all discussions of her shows, such inclusion is also key to changing the atmosphere for minority show runners. Every successful Rhimes show opens the door for others, and in her casting and hiring of crew members, she shows she understands that role.
That understanding is visible in How to Get Away with Murder, as well. The series begins at a fictional law school, where renowned Professor Keating explains to a new crop of law students that “How to Get Away with Murder” is also her informal name for her criminal law class. She intends to use the students to help her craft arguments for her pending cases, and will hire the best of them to work at her law firm. While Keating is immediately a compelling character, it is unfortunate that so much of the pilot episode requires the viewer to suspend disbelief, starting with the idea that a top-notch defense attorney would allow a class of newbie law students unfettered access to all documents in a case that she is currently defending.
Better not to worry too much about the case of the week or the ridiculous way in which it is resolved. The plot is basically just a mechanism to introduce us to the talented law students who manage to obtain key pieces of evidence at exactly the right time through a variety of methods that are both creative and underhanded. Of course, most of what they do would be inadmissible if not for a judge who ignores standard procedure. To be fair, this describes nearly every judge on TV.
Most of the students are equally familiar types (four of the five chosen to work at Keating’s law firm are caricatures of driven law students). The fifth is more interesting, if only because it is so clear that his presence is setting up a major secret or two. Wes Gibbins (Alfred Enoch) was just admitted to the law school two days before classes started, had no idea there would be homework on the first day, and seems generally bewildered that he is in the mix for the job at the law firm. Keating’s selection of Wes would be more anomalous if it wasn’t for the pilot’s general inclination to dole out tidbits of information that will coalesce down the road, hopefully in better episodes.
If How to Get Away with Murder plans to be a courtroom procedural, it already looks low on ideas. But it likely has other aspirations. Like most TV series featuring a mentor with a team of acolytes, it will live or die, so to speak, on its shrewd intertwining of characters’ personal and professional experiences—the very sort of intertwining that Rhimes’ other shows have accomplished repeatedly.