There are two shows at war with each other inside “How to Get Away with Murder,” which joins an all-Shonda Rhimes night of programming (though this one is only produced by Rhimes; Pete Nowalk created it) on ABC tonight at 10. One is a formulaic legal procedure in which yet another brilliant, inscrutable master of the profession with questionable social skills mentors a group of impressionable young students, each week closing a new case and imparting a new lesson. The other is a complicated serialized mystery with a fractured timeline designed to keep the audience on its toes as to who did what, and why, and whether we should be pulling for any of them to live up to the show's title.
If I've correctly read the fine print on the back of my membership card to the TV critics club, I believe I'm supposed to prefer the second show. But based on the first two episodes of “How to Get Away,” I'm rooting for the first show to quickly override the second, like a fetus absorbing its weaker twin in utero.
Why? Well, the first show has the great and powerful Viola Davis, and the second show (at least in the pilot) has a whole bunch of people who mainly remind you of all the ways in which they are not Viola Davis.
Davis plays Annalise Keating, a mysterious, intimidating, cool as ice Philadelphia law professor who recruits her best students each semester to intern in her criminal defense practice and help brainstorm every dirty trick possible to protect her clients. Based on what we see of Annalise in these early episodes, she's a collection of anti-hero(ine) clichés grafted with the DNA of John Houseman's tough law professor character in “The Paper Chase” – the latest attempt to do “House, J.D.,' essentially. But as vividly embodied by the two-time Oscar nominee, she transcends her borrowed origins to become a compelling character in roughly half an episode's worth of screentime. The part of the show that focuses on her is formula, but it's a time-tested formula designed specifically to showcase actors who can hold the screen hour after hour, season after season, regardless of how familiar and/or bland the stories and characters surrounding them may be. A star vehicle where Davis – long consigned to character actor-dom by some combination of her age, race and gender – gets to blow away everyone and everything around her isn't one I imagine I would think deeply about, but it's one I'd enjoy. The case she tries in the pilot is a rough sketch at best, because so much else is going on in the hour, but in the moments when Annalise is plotting strategy with her underlings, or pulling one shady trick after another in open court, are a treat because Davis is there to carry it all. And the second episode's case, with Steven Weber as the sort of creepy client who is absolutely guilty of something, even if it's not this specific thing, is a notable improvement.
I imagine Annalise will eventually be involved in the murder plot, but at the start, it's just her students – including Alfred Enoch(*), Aja Naomi King, Karla Souza and Jack Falahee – trying to dispose of a body several months in the future, as Nowalk's script begins slowly tossing out clues as to what happened and how these well-scrubbed achievers came to this point. Nowalk has set up an elaborate game of Clue, with different sketchy relationships between the supporting characters in the present-day and future scenes, and with scenes shown multiple times over multiple episodes to gradually reveal what happened.
(*) As the show's wide-eyed POV character, who is apparently most transformed by his association with Professor Keating, Enoch is presented as even more of a lead in the pilot than Davis (things balance out more in episode 2), but maybe doesn't have the gravity to pull off that prominent a role. It doesn't help that his American accent (Enoch played Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter films) at times makes his voice very high-pitched and squeaky, circling around the outer rim of Urkel territory.
It's all presented through a smoky blue filter, the students all seem to have aged a decade in the space of a few months, and I imagine Nowalk, Rhimes and ABC are all hoping that this mystery is what will get the audience talking and tuning back in week after week. But the characters involved are so much less compelling than Annalise that it feels like a magic trick gone awry – sleight of hand that keeps pulling your attention from the one person who makes the show work.
That the second episode focuses so much more on Annalise, the many dysfunctional relationships in her life, and the case she's trying is a promising sign. Given the timeline, Nowalk will almost certainly have to burn through the mystery within the show's first 13 episodes – and I'm assuming that much of what's happening isn't what it appears to be, or else the show and its ensemble aren't sustainable – and hopefully by then he'll have either found a way to make the conspirators interesting, or recognize that the show can survive just fine without that level of trickeration.
Viola Davis is a star, and it's long overdue that she got to frontline a show like this. It'd be a shame if that show winds up underusing her because it didn't trust that she'd be enough through the sheer brute force of her personality.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org