You know how sometimes a kind of dumb TV show just hooks you anyway? And you sit there goggling at it week after week thinking simultaneously, “Shit, this is dumb” and “OMG, what’s going to happen next?” When people talk about TV at work, you make sure to bring up something artsy with impeccable cred, because you’d be mortified if they realized you turn the phone off and make popcorn for How to Get Away with Murder?
Dude, it’s sooooooooo stupid.
Why do I love it so much?
Look, I saw it coming from a mile off. Three thousand miles, actually: I was giving some poetry readings in New York and yeah, maybe you’re a badass hipster who Ubers their way around New York, but I’ve already disclosed that I am a dork so, hey, I take actual taxis. Uber bugs me. Even more than New York cabs. Well, anyway, they have those OMG Shut Up little TVs in the back that play those relentless repeating loops of entertainment microprogramming, as if you’re not absorbing enough advertising while you’re stuck in a Times Square parking lot traffic jam because your friend lives uptown but your reading’s at the New School. And this was a big ad-loop for ABC programming for the new fall season that was about to start. I remember there was something about a guy who couldn’t die, what was that thing called? Forever? I actually thought it looked promising; it was quirky and seemed potentially intelligent. More so, anyway, than the other show they were mega-plugging, which was a Shonda Rhimes melodrama-necklace crafted to show off the multifaceted sparkly jewel that is Viola Davis. She played Annalise Keating, a dirty-as-hell professor who taught criminal defense law in Philly. I could already tell the premise was flat-out absurd and I could already tell I was going to watch it when it aired, too. Seduced by a taxi-telly. Awesomeballs. Kudos, ABC: Ya got me.
Remember in the 1980s, when music pundits declared that Madonna was a fluke flash in the pan and Cyndi Lauper would reign immortal? They had a point, dudes. One of those women was psychotically talented, with a four-octave range and a quirky-awesome songwriting style, and one was a zeitgeisty marketing machine who could dance.
So: Forever succumbed to mortality. How to Get Away with Murder is still… you know, getting away with murder. And I am trying to sort out why, or how, or maybe both. Because the show is totally absurd. I mean, c’mon. Every time you think it can’t possibly get any more overblown—and this show makes a lot of telenovelas seem standoffish—it ups the ante. I mean, if this show were a person, it would have Histrionic Personality Disorder and no one would invite it over for dinner and its kids would fight bitterly over who had to take care of it when it got old and demented. It’s unrealistic to a point that courts ethical problems in its characterization of the legal system, though obviously, entertainment has no special obligation to pay lip service to what actually can and cannot happen in the real world. But still. Why is it still on and why am I still watching it? An improbably vast web of intrigues, dramas, Terrible Shadowy Pasts, betrayals, dysfunctions, and stuff that just could not freaking happen in law school, and it keeps getting more ridiculous. How many times can you have a “Where’s my baby?” plotline, even in daytime soaps, before people start rolling their eyes so hard that, to paraphrase Paste’s Movies Editor, the eye-roll “has its own wind shear?” How many times can you use a horrible past abuse or trauma to shore up the M.C. Escher-esque architecture of a story that just wouldn’t happen? What is the secret glue that keeps a person tied to a story so morbidly obese with manipulative, ridiculous plot arcs and improbable characters—and by the way, nothing about this show, which is about lawyer and law students, is remotely a Thing in the Legal or Academic World? If any writer for this show has ever been within ten miles of a law school classroom, I would be blown away. You could write a show about a criminal defense lawyer who commits murder and gets away with it (or doesn’t) and be wildly and horrifyingly realistic. You could. One could. Hell, I probably could.
Is it possible that its manipulative, histrionic morbid obesity is the whole appeal? Or is it the pure neutron-star power of Viola Davis as a performer? Is it a saving-grace awareness of its own histrionics (one of the things that makes something a personality disorder versus an annoying tic is that people with personality disorders have no awareness that they’re disordered and go through life appalled at how screwed up everyone else is) and the riotous giving in to every single groan-inducing soap trope?
Is it magical realism?
Sidebar: I once endured a very awkward moment in a fiction workshop where a reeeeeeaaally young and unseasoned novel-hopeful person asked in complete sincerity whether Harry Potter was “magical realism.” No, everyone said with admirable restraint and patience, it was not. It was fantasy fiction. “But it has wizards in it,” she said plaintively. “And you’re supposed to believe it’s real.” We must have spent ten minutes trying to explain the difference but I don’t think anyone got through to her.
One of the hallmarks of magical realist fiction (in my young workshop novelist’s defense, it is a tricky term) is a supposedly “realistic” narrative fiction world which just happens to have impossible or magical elements woven through it as if they were perfectly normal. That is the stylistic nature of the genre. There’s a structural commonality I have noticed among magical realist fictions, though, and that is that they begin at the end and then wrap back around to the beginning. So the reader (or viewer) tends to know the outcome first, and gets pulled along for 500 pages drenched in mystery anyway, because it’s all about the tapestry of events that led inexorably to that outcome. That a work of fiction can be incredibly mysterious when you know the ending isn’t a huge stretch—murder mysteries usually start with a dead person, and then we either go back in time to find out how and why and who, or we go forward in time and watch the detective chase down the murderer based on the evidence at the scene. That’s not all that weird. There can still be mystery aplenty when you know the ending. What’s harder to pull off than mystery is 500 pages of wild suspense, and that is often the magic trick performed by magical fiction writers.
How to Get Away with Murder
has a similar structural device. Each season is a kind of ticking bomb. We know that it ends with the dead guy. Or the dead girl. Or someone bawling in a jail cell. Or whatever. Episodes begin with that ending, each time dishing out a few more breadcrumbs, and then it rewinds to “Six Weeks Earlier” and then “Four Weeks” and then “72 Hours” and so on. You not only know it ends with that guy getting his skull crushed, you’re reminded of it every week, and every week you get a little bit more expanded context before you’re taken back to a forward-moving conventional plot. It’s supernaturally effective. Far from blowing the suspense, it creates it. I’d posit, actually, that if we didn’t get shown Annalise Keating’s dead husband right up front in the pilot, we wouldn’t be likely to get past episode three. Without this device, we’d get bogged down in the epic disregard for plausibility, and not even Viola Davis could hold up that whole world. With it, we get invested: How are they going to make this make sense?
This show is also, of course, a glittering example of how you can get away with murder when you have strong performers. Yes, Viola Davis is a rock star. So much so that we’re willing to watch unfathomably idiotic storylines just so we can watch her. These writers can murder a script and the entire ensemble just keeps acquitting them. Not everyone has the power to create a compelling human being from a character as clumsily written as, say, vicious-kneecapper-slash-misunderstood-good-guy-slash lawyer-to-be Frank Delfino, but Charlie Weber does. Karla Souza’s Laurel Castillo manages to stay watchable despite having nothing to work with but alternating hypersexuality and vengefulness; Aja Naomi King does so even after they’ve saddled her with Mommy Issues almost as crazy as Annalise’s and the ability to become utterly amoral with no particular justification. Every regular character in the ensemble is so well played it doesn’t matter how ridiculous the material they’re asked to work with is. The guest stars are all truly gifted actors, too—Cecily Tyson, as Keating’s mother, is riveting. Elevating the script, the storylines, the whole gestalt of this show is a Herculean task and they go on ahead and hold the Earth up on their shoulders and look good doing it. When things threaten to get too nutsy, the writers just slather on a bunch of backstory so horrifying you have to concede that someone who’d been through that would, well, sure, yeah, probably be that weird. And just when you think a plot will collapse under its own reality-show-worthy overweight, they find a way to make it seem like it actually is about social justice after all. And you buy it because you are already invested because you want to know who’s dead, how Asher (Matt McGorry) ended up in jail, who shot Annalise, how Sam got killed, and how the showrunners are going to justify Laurel’s missing baby! I mean… really? This has to be like the fourth or fifth missing baby in four seasons! And I’m still watching?
Yep. I am. I’m shutting off the phone and making popcorn and I cannot wait to figure out how they’re going to pull this one off. Because the fish hook was in my mouth from the first scenes, so it gets to drag me wherever at this point. The most ambitious social-climbing member of the team is going to sacrifice her Golden Ticket mentor for a chance to help Whinypants get back at her father for possibly murdering her boyfriend; the Sensitive Guy seems to have committed a bloody crime of some kind, Nate (Billy Brown) and Bonnie (Liza Weil) are both headed for some kind of showdown or meltdown or comedown or bringdown and it’s not exactly clear what form it’ll take; that therapist Annalise is seeing? There is something seriously wrong with him and I am still not clear on how he ended up at the hospital in time for Laurel’s baby to disappear (Fraaaaaaank?). Will Oliver (Conrad Ricamora) end up being a bigger dick than Connor (Jack Falahee) ever was, just in time to crush Connor’s burgeoning inner Nice Guy? And meanwhile I’m still wondering if Annalise is Working the Steps or just playing everyone, whether she’s actually found a sense of purpose or whether she’s merely a sociopath, whether she’s capable of caring about anything but her own power. They’ve set up a completely insane jigsaw puzzle—it makes that 1000-piece van Gogh “Starry Night” puzzle I tried to do with my kids last summer seem like a great idea by comparison.
Here’s a real-world fact: Law school doesn’t work the way it does on this show, at all. Criminal justice does not work like this. None of the premises in this show are real or legal or in any way plausible. But here’s one thing that is: Sometimes there is such a thing as a violent sociopath who is powerful and charismatic enough to have his or her own gravitational pull, a sort of human black hole you cannot get near without getting sucked in no matter how strong you are. That is Annalise Keating. And even knowing she’s probably barely human (or so damaged it doesn’t matter because she will only ever destroy people), you end up in the vortex.
So yeah. Now that I know how it ends, I’m going to find out how they intend to get me there.
How to Get Away with Murder
returns Thursday, Jan. 18 at 10 p.m. on ABC. Previous episodes are available at ABC.com.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.