Something needs to be cleared up. Shonda Rhimes did not create “How to Get Away with Murder”
and she is not the showrunner. Peter Nowalk, pictured above to the right and who has worked with Rhimes for years at her Shondaland productions, is the guy in charge. Though Nowalk has worked on both of Rhimes’ previous hits, “Grey’s Anatomy”
it’s important to note that he is not
This is not to diminish Rhimes’ accomplishments of being the first woman to run an entire primetime line-up. She is in charge of Shondaland Productions, which is stamped on all three shows that make up ABC’s “TGIT,” and she serves as executive producer on “HTGAWM.” However, hardcore Shonda fans may have felt something was a little bit off during the premiere of the hot new crime drama and may not have known why since ABC has been pushing it as a Shonda show through and through.
Shonda Rhimes has a certain signature to her shows and when Nowalk strayed from the formula, it was noticeable. Note: If you haven’t watched the series premiere of “How to Get Away with Murder,” there are major spoilers ahead).
Make the audience love your main character before they do questionable things
Audiences felt a kinship with Meredith Grey trying to get out of her legendary mother’s shadow before they found out she’d slept with her boss. You fell in love with Denny at the same time that Izzie Stevens did, so when she pulled the wire you were willing to lay on the bathroom floor after his death. Olivia Pope proved herself to be a compassionate, smart, top-of-her-game fixer that everyone wanted to be like before you found out she was sleeping with the married President Grant. Shonda Rhimes makes sure you are hooked into her characters before she makes them do morally ambiguous things so you feel torn about being on their side (and inevitably, you always choose them).
When it comes to “HTGAWM,” Annalise Keating immediately comes off as intimidating. We respect her, but is it out of admiration or fear? The plus side is she’s Viola Davis so we’re there because she’s awesome. However, all the audience knows is that she is a law professor no one wants to mess with before finding out she’s having a late-night rendezvous in her office. No one is denying her getting some action (plus the scene was STEAMY). but then it turns out she’s married? Oh no. Finding out where Annalise stands on the moral plot line will be a slow-burn mystery throughout the season, but it means that audiences won’t follow her blindly into the dark. Flashlights are on and that’s different from the normal Shonda experience.
Make your deaths mean something
Here are a list of names that are going to hurt to read: Henry, Denny, James Novak, Lexie, Mark, Harrison, George. Do you know what they all have in common? They are character victims of Shonda Rhimes’ emotional terrorism. One of the famed producer’s favorite hobbies is to make you fall in love with her characters and then kill them off in ways that create new definitions for the word heartbreak.
There are two deaths in the “HTGAWM” premiere, one as a backdrop and one as a major plot twist. Both are used for shock factor rather than heart wrenching moments. Sure, Annalise’s husband was funny in the first few moments we saw him. He seems like a nice guy, but that icy scene between him and Annalise when the missing girl is found in the water tower proves that he probably isn’t the all-around good guy audiences thought he was. So is anyone really torn up when he’s in the rug? No. Intrigued? Absolutely, but not emotionally invested and Shonda is nothing if not a master of emotions.
Shonda Rhimes’ big reveals happen in the first or last 10 minutes
Think back to how many ABC promos you’ve seen with big flashy font “The first/last minutes will. leave. you. breathless.” Countless, right? Shonda Rhimes loves a big dramatic moment but she always strategically places it at the top of the show to rope you in or in the closing seconds to make sure you stay through the whole show. In the Season 11 premiere of “Grey’s Anatomy,” the big moment is Amelia finding out that Weber has a long lost daughter walking around Grey Sloan memorial. On “Scandal” it was finding out Harrison’s fate.
“How to Get Away with Murder” plays around with the reveals. The top of the show tells us that there’s a body — and it has to be gotten rid of. Finding out the body belongs to Annalise’s husband in the last 30 seconds is Shonda-like but since it was teased throughout the entire episode, it doesn’t have the same BAM! surprise that Shonda reveals usually do. The closest to a Shonda reveal that happens in the show occurs at the half-way mark when audiences find out she’s married. That doesn’t pack the punch we expect it to — but it does give a much better look at Annalise’s character. The news doesn’t feel as impactful as it should be.
Let the audience know the secrets even if the characters don’t know
How long did the world know that Cristina Yang was performing fifth-year surgeries for her attending boyfriend Burke before the hospital found out? Audiences also know that Papa Pope is back as head of B613 and is the real killer of Fitz’s son, even though Olivia thinks its her mother. This makes the tense moments between characters even worse. When your audience knows the truth it makes the unfolding even that more tantalizing.
What is going on with Wes Gibbins’ roomate in the “HTGAWM” premiere? Wes doesn’t need to know what she’s up to — but Shonda would tell the world instead of teasing. What is Laurel’s deal with Frank and why was he calling her in the middle of the night? These are questions for characters but does the audience care as much if they are always left curious instead of being in the know.
Does this mean that “How to Get Away with Murder” isn’t worth watching? Absolutely not. Viola Davis is stunning to watch, and the show has set up a fun and twisty ride. However, Nowalk will be better served to follow his own voice instead of trying to create a Shonda-like pattern. No one can do Shonda like Shonda — and that’s not an insult. Nowalk has the tools to create a unique mold for himself. Through this first season he needs to find his own strengths and play to them.
“How to Get Away with Murder” will not be a show that plays with your feelings. It’s a mental game, with mystery and intrigue. Don’t waste your time ‘shipping relationships or picking teams because the sides are going to change at a moments notice. Instead, get out your notebooks and follow the clues. If Nowalk blazes his path down the mystery road instead of bundling himself with Rhimes’ primetime soaps he’ll have something really unique on his hands.
“How to Get Away with Murder” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.