Monday, October 6, 2014

Pilot Season: How to Get Away With Murder (Anti-Heroines FTW)

Look, we all know it's true. Television - good, buzzy, high quality television - is populated almost entirely by male anti-heroes, usually white and middle-class, revolting against the strictures placed on them by their jobs, their families, and their wives. We've got Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White, Jax Teller, Vic Mackey, and all their clones telling us how incredibly hard it is to be a middle-aged, middle-class man in America. Those are the stories we hold up as good television. The ones we trot out when we want to argue about how television is clearly a storytelling medium that can rival movies or novels any day. We talk about all these white dudes.

So trust me when I say that any change from this pattern is deeply welcome. But if Carrie on Homeland, Patty on Damages, and Nancy on Weeds were breaths of fresh air, Annaliese Keating on How to Get Away With Murder is a freaking hurricane.

I'd heard that How to Get Away With Murder was going to be good as far back as last June, when a friend who actually works in TV tipped me off to it. But I was skeptical. For all that they're pretty cool shows, I never managed to get into Grey's Anatomy or Scandal - the late night soap a la Shonda Rhimes just never really did it for me. Until now, that is. Because let's get one thing clear before we go any further: I love How to Get Away With Murder. I'm in. I'm obsessed. I set it to a season pass on my DVR. I might do recaps. That's how in I am.

The show follows the exploits of a class of first year law students taking Criminal Law 101 under the impressive and frightening Professor Keating. As she explains, this class isn't about theory or the nuances of law. It is, simply, "How to get away with murder." And that's how she likes it.

The five main students are a pleasantly diverse, predictably attractive, and fiercely intelligent bunch. Each of them gets their own introduction in the pilot episode, introducing their basic character traits, though there really isn't enough time to go deep on any of them. 

Suffice to say that all of them are very interesting, and the group as a whole (consisting of a Hispanic woman, an African-American woman, a gay white man, an African-American man, and the token white guy) is full of tension and compelling interpersonal relationships. I mean, this being a drama about law school most of those relationships revolve around rivalry and hatred, but it's great material for a show.

Out of all of those characters, Wes Gibbins is probably the closest thing to a protagonist that the show has - he's the aforementioned African-American man, played by Harry Potter alum Alfred Enoch. Alfred Enoch played Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter movies, and is a contender for "most blessed by the puberty fairy". He's attractive, is what I'm saying, and he does a heck of a good American accent.

His character, Wes Gibbins, is our road into the world of the show. Wes is a latecomer to the prestigious Middleton University, a guy who only showed up two days before class started because prior to that he was on the wait-list. He's a hard worker, blissfully naive, and has a raging savior complex that rears its head in the very first episode. He's nice, like Elle Woods trying to get through Harvard Law, but he's also got this tiny tinge of evil in him that makes you just know that he's the one to watch. Also he might not be so pure and innocent as he seems. I like that in a protagonist.

But even if Wes is technically the protagonist, he's by no means the main character. That honor goes to Annaliese Keating, the aforementioned law professor played by Viola Davis. I hesitate to call her the protagonist, because her emotional journey isn't really the point of the show, but she is absolutely the main character. The whole show revolves around her. Heck, the whole school revolves around her. 

Keating is set up as the uber-lawyer. A defense attorney so good at her job that most people think she's secretly evil. A professor who has absolutely no qualms with making her students hate her. A married woman who is more than willing to sleep with a cop in order to invalidate his testimony in a murder trial.

She is not a good woman. She's an antihero. It's wonderful.

And the show isn't afraid to make her unlikable. It's not trying to play it safe or give us an edge where she just might be a good person after all, and she's only doing all of this because she's really misunderstood. No. No, she's a terrible human being. That's kind of the point. Her being a terrible human being doesn't make her a boring or badly written character, it just makes her a terrible human being. That's it. 

There seems to be some sort of a mental block, culturally speaking, preventing us from wanting to see female characters who just honest to goodness aren't very nice. I mean, there are lots of stories about shrews and whores and vixens and bitches and all kinds of other unflattering portrayals of women, lots of women who are the villain, the bad guy, the witch. But it's still relatively rare to see a depiction in our culture of a woman who is, well, bad, and not punished for it.

Annaliese Keating lies, cheats on her husband, defends clients she flat out knows are guilty, discredits witnesses just to win the case, and literally calls her class "how to get away with murder". But she isn't the bad guy. She's allowed to be this person, and she isn't vilified for it. Villainous, sure, but not vilified. I feel like that's progress.

Also, she's allowed to be sexy. I mean, it would feel disingenuous if she weren't as Viola Davis is a freaking gorgeous woman, but it's still worth noting that this show allows its middle-aged African-American female main character be portrayed as a desirable and freaking hot woman. That also feels like progress.

Plus there's all of the really interesting questions that come up when you think about her age, race, and probable backstory. Like I talked about with Suits' Jessica Pearson (who would totally be friends with Ms. Keating), Annaliese Keating is a much more interesting character as a black woman than she would be as a white woman or a black man. Because we can infer from her age that she had to start going to law school thirty years ago or so, which means that it was back when that was still a surprising thing for women to do, and right on the tails of the Civil Rights movement and second wave feminism. She had to go to school in probably less than ideal circumstances, and work her way up in a very male-dominated, very white field. Now she's at the top. Hell yes she's cutthroat and terrifying. She has to be.

Actually, it's worth noting that this show is very intentionally diverse, and seems committed to dealing with issues of race and sex and class division without getting preachy, but also without letting anyone slide. In fact, the thesis on the show seems to be, "No matter who we are, no matter what our backgrounds, we are all capable of terrible things." Not super chipper, sure, but definitely interesting.

It's interesting because it's very different from the usual discussions of race and sex in our culture. We have a tendency to go two different (bad) ways. Either there's the racist view that black people and women and gays and Hispanic people (etc) are all bad and inherently less than human, or there's the liberal view that black people and women and gays and Hispanic people (etc) have all been treated badly by the system and are complete innocents who must be cared for. Neither of these options are good. Both of them dehumanize minorities by assuming that they can be either good or bad but not both.

Spoiler alert, people are both. Human beings are both good and bad, and while the circumstances of your race and gender and sexual orientation will have a big impact on your circumstances, underneath all of that, people are still people. And that means we are both good and bad. To deny that is to dehumanize us. Annaliese isn't a victim or a saint or a whore or a mother just trying to do her best. She's a person, and that really matters.

I should point out that the show does have a plot too. I'm not recapping it here because it's incredibly intense and complicated, and I still haven't decided whether or not to recap the show formally yet. But it does have a plot. And, predictably, given the show's title, that plot deals with murder. I mean, there's an episodic arc where each episode Annaliese and her teams of students (the ones I listed above) as well as her associates Bonnie (Liza Weil, aka Paris from Gilmore Girls) and Frank (Charlie Weber) defend murderers and try to get them the "right verdict".

But there's also a season plot, and that seems to revolve around two different murders: that of a Middleton college student whose body was found in a sorority's water tank (ew) and a flash forward to our heroic law students covering up the murder of Professor Keating's husband, Sam. Presumably both of these murders are related. I look forward to finding out how.

If I've gotten anything across here, though, I hope that it's that this is a good show and you should watch it. Not just because we should always support well-written, diverse television (even though that is totally true), but also because it's fun. It's soapy, pulpy fun. What more do you need?

Yeah, I don't know either, dude.


  1. This show is one of my 'will marathon eventually' nominees. I never enjoyed Gray's thing and although I, like anyone blessed with sight, enjoy staring at Kerry Washington, haven't been bitten by Scandal either (I know--it's totally up my alley, I just gotta have like a week to really invest).

    Even more than staring at Kerry Washington, I love Viola Davis. And murder, and always ALWAYS villainelles. So this is gonna happen, eventually.

    1. That's entirely fair. I've been clawing at the walls in between episodes, because this show lends itself so well to bingewatching but there isn't enough to binge yet! Also Viola Davis is freaking wonderful in this.

      Villainelles sounds like a kind of cookie. A delicious, devious cookie.

  2. I mean, there are lots of stories about shrews and whores and vixens and bitches and all kinds of other unflattering portrayals of women, lots of women who are the villain, the bad guy, the witch.

    Villains in very specific, sexualised, madonna/whore, ways. From the sound of it, Keating isn't - even sleeping with the cop sounds more like the way James Bond uses seduction to get what he wants. (Of course that *is* the way the average femme fatale does it too, but they're usually made to sound different).

    1. Word. Her motives are much more complex, or maybe simpler?, than your usual femme fatale's. And contrary to the femme fatale trope, her life does not revolve around men. The men in her life revolve around her, which is an important distinction. Actually everyone in her life revolves around her.

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