The pilot episode of the much buzzed about “How to Get Away With Murder” aired last
ladies that we all can’t seem to get enough of on Thursday nights.
That Viola Davis is playing such a different character – a leading lady – eclipses the
premise of the show. Viola is seen unabashedly gorgeous. Annalise Keating isn’t the least
bit asexual. She takes what she wants. She wears red lipstick. There are suggestions that
she’s unhappily married (to a white man). She has a hunky detective boyfriend (a black man). And she’s already
has set her sights on a young mocha curly head from her class. One can only wonder if Rhimes, and series creator and co-executive producer Pete Nowalk, plan to explore any of that racial interplay in future episodes, or if there’s nothing beyond what we see on the surface.
There’s little surprise plot-wise since the title and the onslaught of trailers gave away
what will happen in her law class. Nonetheless, the students vie for the top to be selected
as an intern in Professor Keating’s firm. The lengths the students go to discredit a witness
adds an element of surprise and sets apart the fantastic four from the rest of the class.
For a pilot episode the frequent flashback scenes involving an earlier murder that the four
students try to hide was distracting. Ambitious but ultimately a flop. The intent was to
build mystery but that screen time could have been used elsewhere, perhaps giving a little
more exposition on the fantastic four, or creating more dramatic tension.
Professor Keating is very similar to Olivia Pope. Keating is great at what she does
professionally yet her personal life seems to be a tangled mess, and dare I say scandalous. In a sense, like Pope, utilizing her brilliant legal mind, and all of her resources, she will probably be another kind of “fixer.”
On the whole, I’d give this pilot episode a B-. It set the stage, showed us the main
characters, which are Professor Keating, and probably the young black male, West, whom she’s
made the object of her attention already. The two of them took up the most screen time.
If I were a betting man, both characters will probably be juxtaposed throughout the season. And
it makes sense, since, as an audience, we need that dramatic tension to navigate all of the
questionable ethical unraveling that we will witness in the coming episodes.
This season, I will probably do a lot of comparison between Kerry Washington and Viola
Davis. Not because they play the same character, but to look critically at two black actors,
and how they’ve been “written” into television in very different ways, based on their individual packages. My gut tells me to wait a bit to decide whether Viola Davis has “made it,” as
the consensus seems to be, thanks to this new character.
Before I close, I should mention that, in watching Shonda Rhimes’ hit show “Scandal,” and now “How to Get Away With Murder,” I realize how much of my thinking about
gender and race is steeped in male privilege, I hate to admit. As a voracious cinephile
who attended an HBCU, so much of my lens – how I look at black folks on screen – comes down to one question: how are they advancing black people, or putting us back?
This is not to say that I don’t pay attention to equally important things, such as the acting,
writing, the directing, etc. But as I’ve come to realize, things rarely change onscreen.
The stereotypes are mostly still there, only they’re just dressed better. Because of this
reality in film and television, I am always fighting with myself (and my friends), about
topics like “Why do we need another Scandalous black woman on television?” And as
one of my friends pointed out, “Why am I okay with scores of Scandalous black men on television?”
So I hope these conversations will be fruitful in thinking critically about gender, race,
and representation, the politics of respectability, and of course, sex. It’s a needed
What did you think of last night’s premiere episode?
If you missed it, you can watch the entire episode on ABC’s website here: