[In case you've Forgotten, and as I will continue to mention each and every one of these posts that I do: This is *not* a review. Pilots change. Sometimes a lot. Often for the better. Sometimes for the worse. But they change. Actual reviews will be coming in September and perhaps October (and maybe midseason in some cases). This is, however, a brief gut reaction to not-for-air pilots. I know some people will be all “These are reviews.” If you've read me, you've read my reviews and you know this isn't what they look like.]
Show: “How To Get Away With Murder” (ABC)
The Pitch: “You know what 'Paper Chase' needed?” “What?” “Viola Davis instead of John Houseman.” “Meh.” “Viola Davis and MURDER?” “Closer.” “Viola Davis and Murder and Shonda Rhimes?” “Sold.”
Quick Response: First off, Peter Nowalk created “HTGAWM.” Shonda Rhimes produced the darn thing, but she's a busy woman and I'm sure she'd want to give credit to her collaborators, even if ABC isn't interested in doing the same. Also, you'll probably wonder why “HTGAWM” doesn't quite have that Shonda Sparkle. Of course, Nowalk has bitten off a lot here and at least for one episode, it's a bit of an over-bite. You think you're getting The Viola Davis Legal Hour and you'll probably want The Viola Davis Legal Hour and Viola Davis is so freaking compelling that your brain will probably process this as The Viola Davis Legal Drama, but you'll keep getting distracted, because “HTGAWM” is more functionally The Pretty Young Actors Who Are Taking Viola Davis' Law School Class Hour” and 43 minutes just isn't enough time to establish an ensemble of eight or nine people when you have an Oscar nominated actress — Viola Davis has never won an Oscar, which is the heigh of BS — people really want to see. So the vast majority of the pilot was, for me, spent trying to distinguish between several interchangeably attractive members of the ensemble, trying to recognize at least one slightly obscurely introduced member of the ensemble, gradually recognizing one slightly grown-up member of the ensemble and really wishing that Viola Davis was on-screen more, because she may have more screentime than any other single member of the cast, but I think the amount of time she's off-screen probably tops the amount of time she's on-screen. It's hard enough to honor and imprint a huge ensemble in a 43-minute pilot, but it's even harder to do when you're also introducing an episodic procedural mystery and a season-long mythology mystery, while also playing around with time. Ultimately, it may turn out that the game is worth the candle, but it's a season-long game and it uses entirely too much candle in the pilot. Or, put in English, the season may eventually prove to be worth the effort, but that will be as a cumulative construction, while there's insufficient data and intrigue for me to feel like the pilot as a stand-alone is worth the effort. Or put yet a different way, I can't care about a season-long arc maybe implicating some characters in the murder of another character if I can barely identify any of the characters, be they hypothetical perpetrators or a hypothetical victim. “HTGAWM” operates under the assumption that the mere act of murder is fascinating enough that no additional investments are required. That assumption is faulty. I watched the pilot pre-press tour (with notes), but didn't write this until now, I remember basically nothing about any of the supporting characters and I don't remember a single notable non-Davis performance. Davis is at least playing an interesting character, but I'd kinda prefer to see her become at least a Kerry Washington-level focal point, which she currently is not. Anyway… This pilot feels like an unsuccessful overreach, but it may play better when you can see a second episode soon after and, like I said, it may build to something better.
Desire To Watch Again: Viola Davis is probably going to keep me watching for a long time, because TV is a better place with Viola Davis popping up every week. But other than sticking around post-“Scandal,” Davis is the component that will be keeping me watching.
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All of my 2013 Take Me To The Pilots Entries
All of my 2012 Take Me To The Pilots Entries
All of my 2011 Take Me To The Pilots Entries
All of my 2010 Take Me To The Pilots Entries