The thing about dramas (procedural or serialized) is that for the most part, the plot consists of white people saving white people from other white people. Sometimes it’s white people saving white people from disease or natural disasters, but my main point is that it’s almost always all about white people. Maybe there’s a minor character of color or a few episodes about drugs, terrorism, or hate crimes--but other than that, it’s mostly a bunch of white people undergoing dramatic events.
Often, the leads of the show are men, the majority (if not all) of the main characters are white, and the majority (if not all) of the main characters are straight. There is probably underlying sexual tension between the lead male and one (or more than one) of the main female characters. A problem arises. A white man uses his superior intellect, wit, and/or cunning to solve the problem. If it is a procedural, everything is resolved. If it’s not, then there’s something left to move us on to the next episode.
Think NCIS. Think Cold Case. Think The Mentalist. Think White Collar. Think
House M.D. Think Suits. Think Criminal Minds. Take your pick from any version of CSI or Law & Order and the pattern almost always holds.
This has been the case with television for years. People of color get polarizing sitcoms, and queer characters are either minor and recurring or only ‘incidentally’ queer. In TV drama, if they’re major characters, they’re almost always villains or victims--never anything more than their stereotypes.
But executive producer Shonda Rhimes is in the business of turning these norms on their heads. Her latest project for ABC, How To Get Away With Murder has all the usual trappings of a TV procedural but offers so, so much more. Mixing the traditional structure of a crime procedural with a serialized series plot, How To Get Away With Murder creates an intoxicating primetime cocktail that’s worth making a case for.
Before reaching your own verdict, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, please take a moment to view this compelling evidence.
WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
1. The foremost character is a woman of color.
Do you know how rare this is? Until Scandal, the last show featuring a black female lead was Get Christie Love! in 1974. Currently, there are four other shows on cable TV with women of color in leading roles--Suits, The Mindy Project, Elementary, and Sleepy Hollow--though no show (other than Scandal) offers them as the main character. However, all shows, including Scandal, also feature a white man in a leading role.
How To Get Away With Murder doesn’t offer that dynamic. Professor Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) is the queen of her own court. A woman who’s dedicated her life to cleaning up other peoples’ messes, she’s built both on self-sufficiency and the subservience of others. No one else is quite as cunning, quick, creative, or charismatic as the one and only Annalise Keating. She rewards those who play her game but cannot be trumped herself. She doesn’t need back up. She takes what she wants, when she wants it.
Why is this great? Because women of color are usually stereotyped as either ruthlessly angry, sassy, adorably naive, or motherly. They’re often just stereotypes, with little depth to their characters. Worse still, they, in the end, are often the subservient one--always helping or providing for someone else’s cause, backing up someone else, or being led around by some ‘higher power’. But Annalise Keating just doesn’t fit that description.
2. She is not boxed in by that label.
This goes on to show that even though Annalise Keating is a character of color, she is not defined by it within the context of the show. She’s just a character. She has flaws. She’s built of unfulfilled wants and dangerous lies. She uses her femininity to get what she wants and is willing to betray nearly anyone to do what she needs to do. She loves her husband, but knows that he’s done some bad things. She cheats on him. She uses people for her games. She has no sympathy or patience. She is cold and calculating, but what emotion she does show is often sadness rather than anger. She hides herself, but she’s also not afraid to be who she is. She’s not bogged down with the stereotypes of blackness or of womanhood--she’s as evenly mixed and matched as any other character on TV, if not more so.
For a show that so heavily advertised the labels of their characters, they’ve been pretty good at smashing them so far.
Wes Gibbons (Alfie Enoch) was advertised as “the puppy.” Connor Walsh (Jack Falahee) was advertised as “the player.” Michaela Pratt (Aja Naomi King) was advertised as “the prom queen.” Laurel Castillo (Karla Souza) was advertised as “the idealist,” and is referred to as “Frank’s girl.” Asher Millstone (Matt McGorry) is advertised as “the douchebag.” Some names stem from what Annalise Keating calls her students, while others come directly from those advertising the show.
Whatever the case, within the first two episodes, the viewer begins to see that none of the characters are what they are marketed as.
Wes Gibbons is no puppy--he’s just as cunning as the rest of the students, if not more so. Connor Walsh is a player on the outside, but when it gets down to it, he only does what he wants to get what he needs; he doesn’t play by anyone else’s rules. Michaela Pratt tries really hard to play her role as prom queen--well-liked, admirable--but no one buys it, and she ends up much more shaken than your typical prom queen. Laurel believes firmly that she’ll never give into Keating’s assistant Frank, but it becomes clear very early that something is going on between them, even though Laurel refuses to acknowledge that tension. Asher, the douchebag, is not even really a douchebag: he just doesn’t know any better.
This gives all of the characters good and bad points, which is rare thing for a cast this large. Usually, you get a set group of heroes and villains, but, with How To Get Away With Murder, it’s just not so.
Every character in the show is morally ambiguous.
Annalise Keating saves known murderers from going to jail. She cheats on her husband with a married police chief. Her husband, Professor Sam Keating, is also cheating on her, possibly with one of her co-workers as well as with one of his students. Wes Gibbons discovers both Keating’s infidelity and the truth about the cases they take, but decides it’d be better to lie than lose his position in Keating’s favor. Connor Walsh sleeps with an IT guy to illegally obtain evidence for a case, but then, ends up really liking the guy. Michaela Pratt will do just about anything to protect her reputation. Laurel Castillo is likely sleeping with one of Keating’s advisors, Frank. Asher Millstone doesn’t seem to care whether anything that they do is legal--he only cares that he’s getting a law degree.
All of the characters on the show literally work to get away with murder.
You don’t have heroes or villains--good characters or bad characters. You just have people. They make mistakes--sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose--and they’re flawed. Everyone on the show--no matter their age, race, gender, sexuality, relevance to the plot--is viewed equally, both in the eyes of those making the show and the eyes of those watching the show. It normalizes the “abnormal.”
And the very best part is, it makes motivation for the characters very ambiguous, thus creating the final convincing argument for watching the show.
In the end, it’s the moral ambiguity of the characters that helps to supply the shock that comes with each new twist and turn.
If we understood each character perfectly--if they fell into line with their tropes, or what TV usually holds for them--the show would not be so shocking. But because character motivation is unclear and because all of the characters exist in a moral gray area, it makes each plot movement even more unpredictable. Every twist and turn comes as a genuine shock. It’s been a long time since a crime show has done that.
So if nothing else excites you--a diverse cast, representative characters that defy labels and stereotypes, a new Shonda Rhimes show--at the very least, you can get excited about the plot, which has already been full of surprises.
That’s the best case I can make, given the evidence. But even if you’ve still got some reasonable doubt, just check out the trailer and keep in mind that the other main character is Harry Potter’s Dean Thomas all grown up and that, at the very least, you’ll get to see some really good gay sex.