October 3, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Pilot + 1 Review: “How To Get Away With Murder”



A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot and the production of regular episodes: writer/producers may be hired or fired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics start to rear their ugly heads. Tone, pace, casting, and even story can change. Here at SHOWBUZZDAILY, we look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.

Previously… on HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER:  At Middleton College, the brilliant, daunting law professor and criminal defense attorney Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) has gathered together her yearly group of five of her most promising students to work with her at her law firm during the school term.  These five (Alfred Enoch, Jack Falahee, Karla Souza, Aja Naomi King, Matt McGorry) range from the (schemingly?) naive to the (naively?) scheming.   At the same time, a campus murder case is percolating in the background, involving the death of a student with ties to Annalise’s husband Sam (Tom Verica), and the case also implicates one of the student’s neighbors, Rebecca Sutter (Katie Findlay).  Meanwhile, intermittent flash-forwards show the students disposing of a body–Sam Keating’s.

Episode 2:  The pilot’s formula was more or less repeated in the initial regular episode of Peter Nowalk’s series (which, although produced by Shonda Rhimes, was neither created nor written by her).  It’s no surprise, then, that the hour shared the pilot’s strengths and weaknesses.  After two episodes, the student characters are still weakly sketched, with Wes (Enoch), Rebecca’s seemingly nice-guy neighbor, getting the most screen time, but still not all that interesting.  The show seems to be so intent on keeping upcoming twists close to its vest that it doesn’t want to tell us much about anyone, which leads to a lot of arch dialogue that implies backstories and strategies we don’t yet know about.

Annalise herself, for example, was presented in tonight’s episode (written by Nowalk and directed by longtime David E. Kelley associate Bill D’Elia) as thoroughly horrified by the links between her husband and the murdered girl, running to her sometime-boyfriend, cop Nate Lahey (Billy Brown), to have him check out Sam’s alibi for that night.  Yet it wouldn’t come as much of a shock down the road to find out that Annalise was playing a big con, and that she already knows much more about the killing than she’s letting on.  The character is so purposefully vague at this point–not because of any lack in Davis’s commanding performance, but because Annalise is constantly putting on a show, much like Glenn Close’s character on Damages–that she could still go in any direction, and at some point that may become frustrating.  Adding to the feeling of blur, the flash-forwards are edited in such a fragmentary fashion that very little about them is comprehensible at this point.

As in the pilot, the trial-of-the-week storyline felt little more than perfunctory, with TV’s favorite guest star Steven Weber as a multimillionaire accused of killing his second wife.  Annalise got him off with the argument that he couldn’t be guilty of this crime because he’d done so much better a job of killing his first wife.  Both the character and the result felt very much like a warmed over Colin Sweeney episode from The Good Wife.

How To Get Away With Murder may feel unfocused and artificial in terms of its characters, but it’s been put together with all pf the precision the Shonda Rhimes TV machine provides.  The pace hurtles, and the dialogue is a study in one-upmanship, with Annalise goading her students and employees as they all goad each other.  No one here is particularly likable, which in itself isn’t necessarily a flaw, but apart from Davis, as written and played they’re also not very distinctive.

The Murder premiere went through the roof in the ratings, the crowning touch on ABC’s Shondaland Thursday.  With Parenthood as its only dramatic challenge for now (and Elementary unlikely to make things much tougher when it returns after football), the series seems poised to kill, and that will give it plenty of time to prove that it’s building toward something we can’t yet appreciate.  Scandal, remember, required most of its short first season to find its form.  For now, the new series is entertaining enough to encourage some patience.


PILOT + 1:  How To Get Away With Not Quite Clicking Yet


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."