Review: How To Get Away With Murder 1×1 (US: ABC; UK: Universal Channel)

Shonda Rhimes' Paper Chase

How To Get Away With Murder

In the US: Thursdays, 10/9c, ABC
In the UK: Acquired by Universal Channel. Will air in October

As I mentioned earlier today when reviewing black-ish, ABC’s go-to person when it comes to diversity is Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes. Indeed, this year, as in previous year’s, they’ve gone to her for a new series full of diverse leads, and true to form, she’s delivered them How To Get Away With Murder, a pleasingly diverse legal procedural show that’s based around lawyer and university professor Viola Davis and the students she teaches and eventually recruits to work for her in genuine law cases.

There is, of course, a reason why they keep going back to her – namely that as well as producing diverse shows, she produces crowd-pleasing shows that people actually watch (well, apart from Off The Map obviously). This is typically through a combination of decent casting, soapy characterisation and logic-defying, crazy nuts plotting, with Scandal regularly blowing its audience’s collective mind through plot twists that feel like a somewhat unexpected LSD trip.

How To Get Away With Murder does feel slightly like one of those trips, in as much as it involves a brief flashback to the 70s for us to remember the wonderful The Paper Chase, which followed some incredibly white males through the first year of Harvard Law School under the stern gaze of the extraordinary and equally white and male John Houseman.

How To Get Away With Murder essentially takes The Paper Chase – and indeed the exact scene above – and puts it through the unique filter of Shonda Rhimes. So we’re introduced to a bunch of law students of varying genders, ethnicities and sexual orientations – but minimal personality beyond archetypes – at a university that looks a lot like Harvard but isn’t. Viola Davis (City of Angels, Century City, Traveler, The Andromeda Strain) is the John Houseman of the piece, a fiercely intelligent but practical lecturer who rather than teaching legal theory prefers to teach the practice of law and its numerous sneaky tricks in a class that she calls ‘How To Get Away With Murder’. To win her approval, the students must work as hard as it’s possible to work, back stab, cheat, rim and do anything they can to show that they’re the kind of lawyer she should employ. And rather than do it with an old case study, they’re going to do it with a legal case that Davis is currently defending.

Good format of the week already, isn’t it?

But Rhimes isn’t finished yet. It’s not Rhimes-y enough. Because interspersed with that decent-enough format, we have a flashforward to three months later where the students are busily putting Davis’ teaching into practice to cover up an actual murder. Will they get away with it? And who have they killed – Davis?

We’re still not Rhimes-y enough yet, because bolted onto that, there’s a missing student who may have been killed by her boyfriend; Davis is having an affair with a police officer; everyone else is having affairs with everyone else; and no one’s getting much sleep.

And for me, this is a classic case of over-egging the pudding. I’d have been happy with The Paper Chase 2014. That would have been a fun show. It probably would have been a bit more accurate about the law, too.

And while I don’t want to be the kind of guy who watches a show and says “Hey, wouldn’t this show I just thought of have been much better?”, adding a murder conspiracy plot and all the numerous affairs between people who really aren’t interesting enough to care about yet feels like too much being juggled in a one-hour show. Yes, it works for Scandal, with all its political intrigues and high-adrenaline pace, but it doesn’t really work here with a bunch of kids.

So I really think The Paper Chase 2014, mixing Davis’s classes with her actual cases, would have been a more interesting, better show.

Another problem is that while the Tony-winning, Oscar-nominated Davis is excellent, everyone else is varying degrees of bland, eager and annoying – whether you’ll enjoy the show will essentially be down to whether you like Viola Davis and how much screen time she’ll get in future episodes. The show also balks a little at having too much fun, with everyone seemingly competing for excuses for their affairs: ‘My wife’s got to cancer’, ‘My husband wants us to have a baby and it’s putting a strain on our marriage’, and so on. Just shag, will you, you fictional TV characters. Don’t be miserable about it afterwards.

I’m not convinced the show is going to last. With Davis as the show’s lynchpin and little else, the multiple attractions in Grey’s Anatomy just aren’t available; and without the full-on embrace of the ridiculous, it’s not got the chutzpah of Scandal either. But if you like a long mystery and conspiracy thriller eked out between shagging and lectures, perhaps How To Get Away With Murder is the show for you.