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How to Get Away With Murder, Ep. 1.01, “Pilot” is TV’s newest obsession

How to Get Away With Murder, Ep. 1.01, “Pilot” is TV’s newest obsession


How to Get Away With Murder, Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot”
Directed by Michael Offer
Written by Peter Norwalk
Airs Thursdays at 10pm EST on ABC

How to Get Away With Murder, the new ABC drama from writer Peter Norwalk and executive producer Shonda Rhimes, has the potential to drive off the rails at any moment. The premise it sets up for itself (spoiler alert: it’s a murder) cannot sustain itself for more than a season. Its characters, a group of ambitious law students, are pitched at tones ranging between frantic and rabid. Its procedural elements are nothing that would be out of place on a Dick Wolf show. But the one element that gives me utter confidence that this show is worth watching, besides Shondaland’s unquestionable track record, is the central performance of Viola Davis, one of the great American actresses of our time. Her role as Annalise Keating, criminal law professor at Philadelphia’s fictional Middleton University, shows herself to be charismatic, intelligent, and supremely manipulative in just a handful of scenes. She’s a predator with flashes of humanity. If the writing holds up, Davis will be able to create an antihero in the league of Tony Soprano and Walter White.

An actress of Davis’s stature and talents doesn’t often do episodic television. Most of the great TV actresses working today (Juliana Margulies, Connie Britton, Claire Danes, Elizabeth Moss) use their faces to convey their thoughts and emotions. They thrive in a close up, where the camera catches their characters’ internal lives and projects them out. Davis, perhaps from her years as a theatre actress, uses her whole body to act, and is just as thrilling to watch in medium shots as in close ups. Michael Offer, who directed the pilot, is wise to shoot Davis from afar when the audience is introduced to her as she enters the lecture hall for first time. He trusts that she can command the shot even in such a huge space. As he eventually pans in to her face during her speech and she reveals the name of her class, “How To Get Away With Murder” a line that on the page could read as ridiculous becomes utterly serious, thrilling, and more than a little frightening.

The young actors who surround Davis cannot hope to compete with her, but they each have a few moments to shine. Alfred Enoch, who is best known as Dean Thomas from the Harry Potter films, is quite likable as Wes Gibbons, a student who’s not quite as prepared as his classmates for the intensity of law school (or murder). Wes is the audience surrogate, and he could have been a bland blank slate with a less appealing actor in the role. He shows he’s up to the task of sharing the screen with Davis, especially in a scene late in the pilot where Davis hits on him. His mix of confusion, fascination and fear is played beautifully. The other students have less to do, but the actors seem skilled enough to be able to deepen their characters when more is asked of them.

The structure of the pilot itself is less interesting than the mysteries that it sets up. This is another instance in which a story is told in medias res and in flashbacks, a crutch that writers (and network execs presumably) use to hook viewers impatient with watching a mystery build naturally. By the end of the hour, we know whose murder the characters are trying to get away with, and that revelation has the potential to dampen the suspense quite a bit. The what (a body) is presented – unless it’s a total misdirect (in which case, boo) – and the rest of the season will be spent exploring the how and the why. Hopefully the writers will find a way to make those discoveries exciting. But as long as they keep Viola Davis at the center of the story, more than half their work is done for them.

Other thoughts:

Two sex scenes on network television that are actually sexy. I approve!

I audibly groaned when the “Three Months Earlier” chyron appeared.

Since when does Aspirin kill people?

The case of the week, which hopefully the show will do away with eventually, was clearly based on the plot of Carrie Underwood’s “Two Black Cadillacs.”

Viola Davis’s husband is definitely sleeping with the blonde lawyer, right?

Almost 15 million people watched last night so don’t get left out! Catch up and share your thoughts in the comments. I won’t be reviewing every episode of How to Get Away With Murder, but I’ll check in whenever something crazy happens, which might be a lot.