New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley may be surprised to hear this, but law professor and criminal defense attorney Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) is anything but angry. In fact, when first-year student Wes Gibbins (Alfred Enoch) discovers her in a compromising position midway through the pilot for How to Get Away with Murder, Keating’s response is eerily calm—the barest flicker of surprise, followed by a few commonplaces about an underling who’s forgotten to lock the door. Among the many offenses committed by her recent essay on the women of Shondaland, then, it’s Stanley’s almost gleeful misapprehension of Keating, Scandal’s Olivia Pope, and Grey’s Anatomy’s Dr. Miranda Bailey that may be the most surprising. In How to Get Away with Murder, created by Peter Nowalk and executive-produced by Shonda Rhimes, Keating scarcely need raise her voice to assert her authority. She is, in Davis’s able hands, simply spellbinding.
Even amid the laziest stretches of exposition, which find, say, Keating’s students introducing the facts of an attempted murder case, Davis commands attention. Though you’ve surely seen it already, in ABC’s widely disseminated promos, the moment she turns from the chalkboard during the first class, her voice shifting into a deeper, more shadowy octave, still shivers with genuine drama. Davis, perhaps drawing on personal experience, knows that Keating’s a born performer. In the lecture hall as in the courtroom, her success depends on an instinct for when to whisper and when to cry, when to offer information and when to withhold it. “Everything after this moment will not only determine your career, but life,” she tells Wes bluntly. “You can spend it in a corporate office drafting contracts and hitting on chubby paralegals before finally putting a gun in your mouth, or you can join my firm and become someone you actually like.” If anything can be said to tie Rhimes’s heroines together, it’s this clear-eyed understanding that power isn’t always synonymous with force. The process of becoming she describes is also an act of will, emphasis on the word “act.”
Though the quintet of law students drawn into Keating’s orbit never amount to much more than the overachieving classmates of your nightmares, their desperate attempts to win the attorney’s respect indicate a similar sensibility. In Keating’s world, intelligence, diligence, seduction, and discretion supersede brute strength, but How to Get Away with Murder places them within a pulpy, melodramatic framework of backbiting and ruthless competition. So far, the characters are as broad as the side of a barn: Michaela, a haughty Keating wannabe (Aja Naomi King); Laurel, a curdled idealist (Karla Souza); Asher, a moneyed, Ascot-wearing man-child (Matt McGorry); Connor, a dapper, sharp-tongued gay man (Jack Falahee); and Wes, the naïve blank slate. But there’s exuberant potential in an episodic structure focused on their evolving alliances—law school as an especially clever, stylish version of Survivor, with immunity awarded to the competitor who holds onto some shred of their soul the longest. (As for their own murder subplot, glimpsed in a handful of leaden scenes, Michaela’s wise words sum up the writing and direction quite nicely: “This is murder,” she says. “None of us know what we’re talking about!”)
Not unlike Scandal or Grey’s Anatomy, How to Get Away with Murder bears Rhimes’s imprint by embracing the flawed and the frail, the becoming rather than the being, in the service of its lavish theatricality. Rhimes may not have created the series, but she’s its guiding influence: How to Get Away with Murder screams “Shondaland” through and through, a sudsy primetime potboiler rooted in a belief that the experience of adulthood can be just as sexy as the bloom of youth. Whether you consider this appealing or off-putting may be a matter of personal preference, but the effectiveness of Rhimes’s school of network drama for her committed fans requires no tired trope to explain it. Annalise Keating doesn’t need to get angry. She can get everything.