Thursday, September 25, 2014

It's Thursday - Welcome to Shondland! (plus Review - How to Get Away With Murder)

ABC launched its new Thursday with two returning dramas and the premiere of a third.  What it really is the night of Shonda Rhimes, as she is the mother of all three.  Is it too much of the same thing in one night?  Not for me - this woman knows how to deliver great TV featuring some of the most racially diverse casts and an abundance of strong female characters.


I'm a long-time viewer of Grey's Anatomy, and the 11th season premiere was solid and entertaining.  Nothing outrageous or shocking, but not every season premiere has to be such.  Yes, Sandra Oh's Yang is missed, but I think the cast is pretty solid and its storytelling is still good even after all these years, at least for me. Geena Davis made her debut quietly (she's going to have an arc this season) and it's funny how much she towers over everyone.  The big questions this season are whether Derek (Patrick and Dempsey) and Meredith's (Ellen Pompeo) marriage will survive, how new doctor Maggie Pierce (Kelly McCreary, Emily Owens, M.D.) - who unknown to Meredith is her half-sister, the love child of Ellis Grey and Richard Webber (James Pickens' Jr.) - will fit in (it took Meredith's other half-sister Lexie (Chyler Leigh) years to have her sis warm up to her - and then she died), and who will in fact get Yang's vacated board seat:  Bailey (Chandra Wilson) or Karev (Justin Chambers).

Next came Scandal, which I binge-watched last year and got immediately hooked.  This is one crazy ride into Washington's deep, dark and dirty - it's an appropriately titled show, as Olivia Pope, played brilliantly by Kerry Washington, makes it her life mission to get power players out of sticky - and often deadly - situations, all while having an on-again-off-again affair with the POTUS (Tony Goldwyn).  

At least that's how it was last season, until everything went to hell, leaving Olivia to flee the country with other-on-again-off-again lover Jake (Scott Foley).  The show is as fast-paced and crazy train as ever - love it! - and Olivia is barely back in town for former Gladiator (that's what she called her once associates) Harrison's (Columbus Short) funeral (he was killed off last season) when she is sucked back into a brand-new scandal.  Does this mean she's back?  Can she pull her team back together and get back to doing what she does best?  Will she resume her affair with the Pres? (Duh!)  So many questions ... so much juicy, racy, nutty fun to come this season!  (Note: just like Grey's Davis, Scandal's big recurring guest star, Portia de Rossi, was abruptly and briefly introduced - can't say Rhimes isn't consistent!)


Then there's the new kid on the block - How to Get Away With Murder, starring Academy Award-nominee Viola Davis.

Davis plays Annalise "The Shooter" Keating, a pulls-no-punches criminal law professor who teaches a class she calls “How to Get Away with Murder.” She's brilliant, passionate and tough - traits she applies daily in her other job as a defense attorney.  Each year Keating selects a group of her smartest and most promising law students to come work at her firm and challenges them to apply what they learn from her to real life cases.  This is being called a "masterful, sexy, suspense-driven legal thriller."  So how was episode 1?

First - though this show is supposed to take place in Philadelphia (the fictional Middleton University), it is CLEARLY UCLA!!  Wonder if they'll have any eps airing in wintertime ...

Onto the show.   Keating's is one hard-core class - right off the bat she fiercely fires questions at the students and heaven help you if you got the answer wrong or worse, stole the opportunity to answer away from another student (which actually turns about to be a good thing ... shows balls, which you just know Keating respects).  She introduces a murder case to them, then reveals that it's an actual case she's working on.  This is their audition to be the Final Five, which ends up being Alfred Enoch (the Harry Potter films) as the naive but clever Wes Gibbons, Aja Naomi King (Black Box) as the snooty but brilliant Michaela Pratt, Jack Falahee (Twisted) confident and closeted Connor Walsh, Matt McGorry (Orange is the New Black) as the egotistical Asher Millstone), and Karla Souza as the quiet but savvy Laurel Castillo. 

The aforementioned test the following day had each student presenting their defense in 60 seconds.  Those who impressed Keating moved on to the next round.  When it was over, Keating laid it out for them:

"Congratulations to those who managed to keep your seat.  That said, none of you beat my approach, which goes as follows:  Step 1 - discredit the witnesses.  Step 2 - introduce a new suspect.  Step 3 - we bury the evidence.  We throw so much information at the jury they walk into the deliberation room with one overwhelming feeling:  doubt.  That's how you get away with murder."

I got chills ...


Davis commands the screen and is perfectly cast.  You know she's outstanding at her job, but what's shocking to learn is that she has a potent emotional detachment from her clients - she doesn't care whether they're guilty or innocent.  This probably enables her to excel at getting them acquitted, but as a TV character, does it make her likeable?  Does she even have to be likeable?  She reminds me some of Sandra Oh's Yang on Grey's - a woman so focused on being the best surgeon, the best doctor, that it hardened her, made her unsympathetic, cold ... until something happened to her to humanize her.  That kind of happened in the pilot, when it was revealed (Gibbons caught her, actually) that she is cheating on her husband (Tom Verica, The Nine, American Dreams).  But later, when she confronts Gibbons and tearfully reveals that trying for a baby has put a great strain on her marriage, it threw me - it was just such a sudden 180.  I kept waiting for her to change back and reveal that she was just testing him - like showing him how many of her clients use such tactics to enact their innocence - and then scare him into keeping her secret.  But instead she ran her hands on his chest rather seductively, making him (and me) uncomfortable and chasing him from the room.  It was too jarring a change.  Plus, you have to wonder if - despite her telling him that he got it on merit - Gibbons got the job because of the secret.  Guess we're supposed to wonder.  

We also see the lines Keating's willing to cross, laws she's willing to bend to get the job done.  Will this also be an alienating trait for viewers?  Because of the strength of the rest of the episode, I'm willing to forgive it - for now. 

Something I liked:   I think the costume department is taking a page from First Lady Michelle Obama's fashion book, opting to forgo the usual, expected legal attire and boldly dressing Davis in leather suits in class and short sleeve and sleeveless dresses in court.  Kinda cool.

Something I didn't like:  there was a strange side-plot going on where you're meant to believe four of the Final Five (minus Millstone) have gone on to commit a murder themselves, but knowing these are the stars of your brand new show and it's only episode one, you don't believe it and know there's a twist afoot, right?  Like they're re-enacting how to cover up a crime for practical knowledge?  NO!  It was revealed that they actually did likely kill someone ... Keating's husband!  WHAT??  Remember that whole they'll-put-to-use-what-they-learn thing?  Bazinga!  Doesn't say much for the longevity of these supposed lead characters, does it?

The pilot certainly wasn't perfect - I think they tried to pull a Scandal and throw a lot of balls into the air at once, but unlike that show it didn't work quite as well, especially that whole group murder-thing. But because I'm a Shondaland fan, I'll give it another couple of episodes.

BOTTOM LINE:  Willing to give this new drama a longer trial period to see where it goes.

How to Get Away With Murder airs Thursdays at 10pm on ABC.

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