how to get away with murder review viola davis 'How to Get Away With Murder' review: Viola Davis shines, potential for a hit is thereThere’s a lot to like about “How to Get Away With Murder,” but there are some troubling aspects of the framing device and setting that may make the show tough to sustain.

“HTGAWM” stars Viola Davis as tough-as-nails law professor/practicing attorney Annalise Keating and focuses on her first-year Criminal Law class and a handful of its gunner students — the ones striving for the top of the class. The slick title comes from what Keating calls her class as she challenges her students to come up with creative defenses to get a real-life, high-profile client off the hook. Those who impress Keating will be helping her with the case.

But naturally that’s not the whole story.

The pilot flashes forward several months to reveal that these gunner first years (1Ls) are also murderers. This intrepid little band of top students has killed someone (whose identity is a nice twist at episode’s end) and now they are trying to figure out — you guessed it — how to get away with murder.

The bright spot of the show is most certainly Viola Davis. She is marvelous in the premiere episode, as we all expected her to
be. Davis is a talented actress with a commanding on-screen presence who
sizzles in this project.

However, almost everything about the premise is completely absurd. It is highly unusual for a law professor to be a practicing attorney, let alone one taking on high-profile criminal defense cases. It is laughable that said professor would let wet-behind-the-ears 1Ls help on such a case.

But this is television. Sometimes you just suspend your disbelief. If you can’t get past the setup, “HTGAWM” is not for you.

If you can get past the setup, the show looks to be a fast-paced, twist-filled roller coaster akin to “Scandal” — though fans of Olivia Pope and Associates should be warned that Shonda Rhimes is “HTGAWM’s” executive producer, not the head writer. Peter Nowalk, who has worked on both of the other Thurshonday shows, created “HTGAWM,” and it makes the premiere feel like it was written by someone trying to imitate Rhimes (which may in fact be the case). That’s fine for the premiere, but let’s hope Nowalk establishes his own voice over the course of the season.

“How to Get Away With Murder” is definitely one of those shows that has a foundation solid enough to warrant watching more episodes. But there are concerns about its long-term viability:

  • Is the murder the season-long arc?
  • Is there a “murder of the week” that plays out via Keating’s cases outside of the law school? That seems like it might quickly wear out its welcome.
  • Will the class study anything else besides murder, which is actually a very small part of a Criminal Law class?
  • These law students would most likely never have Keating again after first-year Crim Law, so will she have a new batch of students in Season 2?
  • What becomes of the 1Ls when they move on to their second year of law school? Is the show suddenly “How to Get Away With Employee Benefits”? “How to Get Away With Alternative Dispute Resolution”?

School settings are always tricky on TV because students continue moving through the grade levels and then finally graduate — unless you take a page from “Pretty Little Liars” and have the longest senior year in the history of television. A law-school setting is particularly tricky because it’s only three years and the majority of classes are not nearly sexy enough for a TV show. That’s OK — the show can be largely character-driven. But would that mean keeping Keating’s Criminal Law class front and center to have a focal point in which to ground the show?

That actually seems like a neat idea, having Davis’ Keating as the star of the show and her supporting cast of students constantly changing. That would be realistic while also keeping the show fresh. But TV shows often do not go that route and instead find ways to keep the core cast together long past the point of believability. It will be interesting to see what “HTGAWM” does in that regard.

Nowalk did say at the TCA summer press tour that the “HTGAWM” team has a plan not only for Season 1 but to launch into Season 2 as well. That goes a long way in assuaging concerns about the show’s long-term prospects. It’s comforting to know a show’s creators aren’t just making things up as they go along.

So buckle up for Thurshonday. “How to Get Away With Murder” might just be the delicious dessert to cap off the three courses of Shonda Rhimes each week.

Posted by:Andrea Reiher

TV critic by way of law school, Andrea Reiher enjoys everything from highbrow drama to clever comedy to the best reality TV has to offer. Her TV heroes include CJ Cregg, Spencer Hastings, Diane Lockhart, Juliet O'Hara and Buffy Summers. TV words to live by: "I'm a slayer, ask me how."