Review: 'How to Get Away with Murder' isn't as strong as its star Viola Davis

ABC's new Thursday drama How to Get Away with Murder isn't as strong as its star Viola Davis.
Published September 22 2014
Updated September 23 2014

Let's get something straight: ABC's new show How to Get Away with Murder was not created or written by Shonda Rhimes, the mighty showrunner of huge network hits like Grey's Anatomy (now heading into its 11th season) and super buzzy Scandal.

The new series, an hour-long drama that will follow Grey's and Scandal on Thursday nights, was created by Peter Nowalk, a protege of Rhimes who cut his teeth on those other two shows. Rhimes' involvement in Murder is as executive producer, and the show comes out of her production company, ShondaLand (which means ABC's entire primetime Thursday lineup now consists of ShondaLand shows).

But Rhimes isn't penning scripts on Murder, and it's apparent in the premiere airing this week. The pilot is missing that spark, that propulsive energy that made Grey's and Scandal so insanely watchable. There are no loquacious, incendiary Rhimes monologues.

Murder stars Viola Davis as defense lawyer and no-nonsense law professor Annalise Keating. Presiding over a bunch of eager Philadelphia University students, she favors a practical approach to teaching, selecting a handful of promising students to come work on cases at her law firm. She calls her class "How to Get Away with Murder," and the way Davis ferociously writes that name on the classroom chalkboard in the pilot's opening moments is thrilling (seriously). It's an exhilarating introduction for Keating — and Davis.

In fact, the actor is hands-down the best part of the show. And that might be the biggest problem with Nowalk's pilot.

It wants to be a show about a strong, flawed female protagonist (Rhimes' signature), and an ensemble drama. Parts of the episode revolving around the students has a real Grey's Season 1 feel. That's not a bad thing. But Murder also wants to be about Davis' character's insecurities and marital issues, so the whole thing ends up feeling a bit muddled.

Scandal is first and foremost an ensemble show, even if Kerry Washington's Olivia Pope is the de facto star. The thing with Davis, an Oscar nominee and Tony winner, is that she's almost too good. She demands attention on screen; when she's delivering a monologue she's the only thing you can look at. It's exciting to think about seeing Davis, a newcomer to television, every week in this format. (Note that the show is only running 13 episodes this season; shorter than the typical 20-something-episode network show.)

But Murder fails to answer why we should spend time with anyone else in the cast (and we certainly do) when we can spend time with the incomparable Davis.

Thursday's premiere flashes back and forth in time, to the students' first days with Keating and to three months in the future, when they've somehow gotten themselves involved in a real murder — as in, covering up and potentially committing it. It seems this (and another, likely related disappearance/murder) will be the season's driving mystery, with the focus very much on this rag-tag group of law students. How'd they get into this mess? How will they get out of it?

There's a slick quality to the storytelling (the up-tempo music cues, the quick cuts), and the supporting cast is fine but forgettable for the most part. Alfred Enoch (who played Dean in the Harry Potter movies) is pretty compelling as Wes Gibbins, a student who's immediately in over his head; Matt McGorry from Orange is the New Black is smarmy classmate Asher Millstone; Gilmore Girls (and Season 1 Scandal!) alum Liza Weil as Keating's associate is always welcome.

But at this point, it's hard to care about any of them as much as we care about Davis, who can make material as silly and convoluted as this work. Now, Murder, how about giving her something she can really kill?

Michelle Stark can be reached at Follow @mstark17.