"How To Get Away With Murder" Doesn't Quite Get Away With Its Framing Device
The Shonda Rhimes-executive produced legal thriller might be pushing some boundaries, but its over-reliance on a wonky narrative device is leaving something to be desired. Warning: Contains spoilers if you are not up to date on the show.
There are many things for which How to Get Away With Murder — from creator Peter Nowalk and executive producer Shonda Rhimes — ought to be celebrated. ABC's new legal thriller, which has aired two episodes to date, follows the Rhimes-ian ideals of its forebears, resulting in a show that is thoroughly modern and diverse, brimming with complicated characters who are inherently flawed and yet innately watchable.
Likewise, the show has already challenged several conventions of television, potentially depicting the first broadcast use of analingus (surely, this hasn't happened on network television before) and positioning a middle-aged black woman front and center while reveling in its depictions of her sexuality. In the pilot episode, Viola Davis' Annalise Keating is shown receiving oral sex from a man who is most definitely not her husband. It's a brave and bold start, intended to shock, and it announces that Annalise is not going to be powerful but desexualized, nor is she going to be the one merely doling out pleasure to someone else. The show's second episode followed up by having Annalise beg her cop boyfriend for help only to go home and engage in sex with her husband — whom she now suspects of murdering one of his students — only to roll over, a single tear falling from her left eye.
It's a telling moment about Annalise's complexity and further jumpstarts the sexual politics on display within the show, and it's a milestone in terms of representation that it's Davis who is so far engaged in these bedroom gymnastics; it's rare to find a dark-skinned black woman on television who is presented as a sexual being in a positive or even neutral way.
But despite the impressive themes at work within How to Get Away With Murder, there are two narratives within the show that continue to jostle, rather unsuccessfully, against once another, even this early on in the series' run. There's the overarching narrative, one in which Annalise has put together a team of young law students — including Alfred Enoch's naïve Wes, Aja Naomi King's ambitious Michaela, Matt McGorry's slimy Asher, Karla Souza's timid Laurel, and Jack Falahee's sly Connor — and has them assist her with a case of the week, Good Wife-style. In the second episode, they were tasked with undermining the prosecution's case against Annalise's client, an eccentric Colin Sweeney-esque millionaire (Steven Weber) who may have murdered his wife. The students flounder, they figure things out, they learn, and they end up helping Annalise. It's a pretty precise formula, one that has worked for The Good Wife and countless other legal procedural dramas.
Then there's the other narrative at play here, one that is set several months in the future and which finds the aforementioned law students attempting to — you guessed it! — get away with murder, in this case the murder of Annalise's possibly-no-good husband Sam (Tom Verica), revealed to be the body at the end of the pilot. The students conspire, using information gleaned from Annalise's law class — whose nickname is the title of the show — in order to seemingly cover up a killing committed by... Well, it's not entirely clear just yet whodunnit or why. Or even if Sam is an innocent victim or something more.
And here's where things begin to fall apart for How to Get Away With Murder. This sort of narrative device — the flash-forward and the in media res beginning of the series — owes a considerable debt to another legal thriller which used it for a similar purpose: Damages. (Also to the very short-lived Fox drama Reunion.) The Glenn Close series, which ran for five seasons, was constructed in a similar way to Murder: a tough and powerful criminal attorney, a naïve student, and blood and mayhem. It toggled back and forth between a future storyline in which a murder had been committed — teasing elements of the crime, its victim, and the investigation like crimson-hued breadcrumbs — and the present-day storyline, which was deeply at odds with where the central storyline had gone. Each episode began to fill in the details as the two storylines inexorably met up by the end of the season. (This device began to sag on Damages after a bit: It's a tough one to sustain season after season.)
And that's the same setup here within Nowalk and Rhimes' Murder: The blue-tinged future storyline, set two and a half months after the events in the present day, find the students struggling to keep their nerves intact as they react to the murder of Annalise's husband, who may or may not himself have been a killer. (This could be one of many, many red herrings heading our way.) But, so far, the show is having difficulty not buckling under the weight of such a cumbersome framework device. For one, there are too many characters at play who still seem to be little more than ciphers (I had to look up their names in order to remember them) so it's hard to be invested in their future crime or the circumstances surrounding it.
Additionally, the show was trying so desperately to trick the viewer into thinking that Wes and the others were helping Annalise escape punishment for her crime, that it quickly became clear that this was a diversion from the person that the students were actually trying to protect. As soon as punk bartender Rebecca (Katie Findlay) asked to use Wes' shower, it became only too clear that she was the one holed up in room 203 of a seedy motel. And, sure enough, she gets arrested after concealing a phone (the dead girl's?) in Wes' bathroom.
This is a problem. Yes, as mentioned earlier, we're only two episodes in so far on Murder and it's quite possible that the show could suddenly make this present/future dichotomy work for itself, but as it stands now, the use of the flash-forward device is far less interesting than it would have been to have told this story in a linear fashion. Instead, the show's writers begin their tale with the volume at 11, and it's impossible to sustain that creatively or organically, even if Murder ends up running only 13 to 15 episodes this season. Even more challenging: The suspense doesn't feel particularly earned, nor do the twists so far, because they're not only telegraphed, but also operating independently of the character developments in the present day.
I'll continue watching How to Get Away With Murder for now (it was one of my favorite pilots of the current crop), even if I'm less than invested in finding out how the flash-forward storyline will fold in on the current day goings-on. (Who knows, maybe the writers will tie this all up with a grand flourish.) Instead, I'd far rather see these characters develop, their dynamics strengthening and fracturing over time, than see them fumble around in the woods with a corpse without understanding their motivations. As it stands now, How to Get Away With Murder might be pushing boundaries when it comes to race and sexuality, but it seems to be killing its potential longevity at the expense of genuine storytelling.