In the new legal thriller TV series “How to Get Away with Murder,” the mental image I have is of cartoon jugglers.
It starts out with two to three rubber balls, but then the juggler adds more, scarier things, and before long he’s dishing up chainsaws, lit bombs and Japanese swords.
At this point you’re left wondering: “How long can he keep everything in the air?” and “If he doesn’t, how awesome is the mess going to be?”
A clarification: “Murder” isn’t created by Shonda Rhimes. The mind behind “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” is actually executive producer; “Murder” airs after the aforementioned hits in a massive, three-hour block in the US that got the “Thank God, It’s Thursday” label.
But credit where it belongs— Peter Nowalk, who had exec producer stints with “Grey’s” and “Scandal,” is behind “Murder.” If ShondaLand were a real place, it wouldn’t be near the border, so to speak.
That aside, it’s easy to see why such mistaken identity is common. “Murder” is soapy, and, like “Scandal” especially, has a habit of throwing plot twist after plot twist on the screen.
Viola Davis (best known for her role in the movie “The Help”) is Professor Annalise Keating, a defense attorney whose nickname for her eccentrically taught Criminal Law class gives the show its name.
Each school year, Keating handpicks the most promising from her class to work with her, in an uber-OJT fashion.
The show’s twist comes in the form of flash-forwards. One particular group of students will, in a few months of show-chronology, be using what they learned in class—not in the courtroom but to get rid of a body from Keating’s house themselves.
Any other show would be content with such a setup, but “Murder” isn’t any other show. Literally all characters—from Keating, the four students, Keating’s assistants in her law firm, and her husband—seem to have a deep, dark secret. It’s for this reason that the juggler metaphor for Nowalk resonates with me.
Three episodes in, and there’s already been a season’s worth of twists, reversals, and “wait, why did he/she do that?” If plot’s the thing though, it has so far come at the expense of the characters.
The four students, Wes, Connor, Laurel and Michaela, haven’t been fleshed out as thoroughly as I would like. On one hand, we’re only three episodes in, and Michaela finally gets her share of the spotlight in the latest one.
But it’s hard to care whether this group would commit murder when you don’t know them yet. Instead, you’re watching to see how the present and the future collide, though admittedly, it’s been interesting enough to keep your attention.
Davis’ Professor Keating is a fierce, headstrong woman whose glare can melt buildings. But the show is smart enough not to portray her as a caricature. Through three episodes, there’s been a sufficient number of scenes showing her vulnerable side, and boy, is Davis a great actress in these bits.
But the “court case of the week” threads have been bores and are the weakest element of “Murder.” So far, we’ve been getting nearly the same “students go digging for clues” montage, followed by one of them cracking the case sequences (though to be fair, the firm has not been batting 100 percent in the courtroom).
Maybe that’s how things work in real law firms, but the more the kids become key to dominating in the hearings, the more it undermines Keating and her firm’s reputation as top-notch.
Ultimately “Murder” will be judged not by its realism but how well it can make us care about the people that populate its coincidence-filled, twist-a-plenty world.