Gather 'round, boys and girls and see how it's done.
Come gather 'round tonight to watch How to Get Away with Murder (ABC, CTV, 10 p.m.) and see how great sizzle is concocted. See how silliness is made into exhilarating, top-notch entertainment. You might feel guilty later. Just a teensy bit.
The series is fun. Pure, mad fun and for that it is to be admired. It moves at a hectic pace, flipping between several story lines, but all are interconnected, and everyone talks fast. Really fast. As if the writer had been told to keep it to 140 characters or less every time somebody opens their mouth. That isn't a coincidence, obviously. The 140 characters thing. Sometimes, listening to the dialogue is like reading some excited person's Twitter feed aloud.
The writer/creator is Peter Nowalk, a protégé of Shonda Rhimes, who created Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, and he wrote for both shows. It does, mind you, have a lot of the Rhimes style – an emphasis on how women create power for themselves. What it doesn't have is Rhimes's often eloquent speechifying by characters. This is zip, zip, zip, keep it moving before the viewer is bored by a long-winded dialogue.
If you've seen the countless promos, you've got the gist of the plot. Viola Davis plays the icy, commanding lawyer/ law professor Annalise Keating, who corrals her Philadelphia University law students into working with her on real cases. It's how she will judge them. She calls her class "How to Get Away with Murder," and yes, the manner in which Davis writes that name on the classroom chalkboard and then wipes her hands, is fabulous TV. You cannot take your eyes off this woman. All tight skirt, leather jacket and heels, she owns the students and owns the show. You are awed by both Viola Davis and Annalise Keating. Meanwhile, the drama cuts away often to another storyline about a group of students trying to dispose of a body. It's done mostly in darkness. Are these Keating's students of the past, present or future? Um, yeah! Stay tuned – the ending has a deftly done twist to keep you glued. And for good measure, there is what might be a third plot line about a missing student. You, the viewer, are being screwed with. What's fascinating about How to Get Away with Murder is the rhythm of it. The visceral, thumping rhythm of sex, anger, rage, ambition and ruthlessness. The rhythm is what holds a barely sustainable concoction together.
That concoction is part courtroom drama, part murder-mystery and part campus, coming-of-age fable. It owes a good deal to The Paper Chase – the 1973 movie, not so much the later, based-on-the-movie TV series. In that drama, a stern formidable law professor, Charles Kingsfield (wonderfully played by John Houseman), terrorizes a group of smart young law students with his gravitas, cool reserve and contempt for mediocrity. In one of the movie's memorable scenes, Kingsfield calls on a student to step forward, then hands him a dime, and says, "Call your mother and tell her you will never be a lawyer."
Here, Annalise Keating has the same charisma and impact. Students are devoted to her, or they are the enemy. The courtroom scenes are often hokey and the unravelling of the opposing side's case is ludicrous, but everything moves with such speed and zip that you barely notice.
Now, you're probably wondering, "Should I get into this thing or is it going to turn goofy after three episodes and then turn dreary by next spring?" Fair question. And here's the twist – How to Get Away with Murder is part of a new trend in network TV: 13 episodes. That's it. That's the season. Cable-length drama, if not cable quality, to ensure your time is not wasted. Thus, for all the lapses, the series is worth your time if you want froth and feel like admiring the excellence of Viola Davis.
How to satisfy your craving for speed, speed-talking clever people and incredible plot twists? It's all three in How to Get Away with Murder. You might hate yourself later, but you might also be back next week.