How to Get Away with Murder ends — And So Does An Era
I always swear that the next article I end up writing about Shonda Rhimes will be the last one, and I always seem to write another one. But the fact of the matter is, Shonda’s era of dominance over ABC may finally be coming to an end.
Tomorrow night, How to Get Away With Murder will air its final episode. And once we learn the fate of Annalyse and the Keating (4? 3? How many have survived her class), Shonda Rhimes’ Thursday night will finally come to an end. With Murder gone and Rhimes now signed with Netflix (where her characters will be able to say the four letter word that they all do to an excess in her series), ABC can no longer make the same claim that Thursday is TGIT. Grey’s Anatomy and Station 19 are still there, of course, but Rhimes passed control to both series over to her lieutenant’s years ago, and their ratings have been headed downward for at least two seasons. This coming decade will finally see her disappearance from the broadcast stage. Good riddance.
To explain why How to Get Away with Murder was such a trainwreck, one has to look at two other legal dramas: Damages, the Glenn Close FX series that I’ve repeatedly made clear that Peter Nowalk didn’t just borrow from as much as he did rip off wholesale, and For the People, the last new entry in Shondaland that was pretty much the only real series of her brand that I genuinely liked.
Damages was basically a drama about a monstrous corporate attorney who destroyed the lives of everyone around her in order to defeat bigger and more important targets = billionaire industrialists, hedge fund managers, energy companies, etc. For those reasons, the central character Patty Hewes would easily fit the description of an anti-heroine. The series also believed in flashforwards to murders or suspicious deaths that would only be explained in the final episode of the season. The series focused on Patty’s parasitic relationship with Ellen, a recent law school graduate who would over the course of the series be revealed to be as ruthless as Patty, even as she tried to destroy her. Damages was one of the great series of the New Golden ages that won four Emmy and got fifteen additional nominations during its run — roughly the same number that Murder has gotten in its. But what separated Murder from Damages was that Damages at least tried to make you feel sympathy for some of the characters on the series. Murder makes everybody horrible — not just Annalyse and the Keating 5, but the lawyers they argue against, the clients, their families, even the people who should be the good guys. And of course, they’re all screwing each other anyway, physically and mentally, so what difference does it make?
I’d say that this was an utterly cynical view of the law, which was utterly contradicting by For the People. A series that took place in a district court, and focused equally on the prosecutors and the public defenders, it was everything Murder was not. Many of the characters were cynical and political animals, but at their core, they believed in justice and the rights of the people. The discussion and arguments the characters made — often against each other — were mixed in a real world scenario with stirring dialogue that would not have been out of place in Aaron Sorkin or David E. Kelley at his peak. And while the central prosecutor and head of the PD’s office did eventually have an affair, it was by far more in the background by the second season. When Roger made a decision to leave his job so he could have a relationship with Janet in the open, it had more emotion and realism than all of the relationships on Grey’s and Scandal put together. For the People was the show television needed, and the fact that ABC threw it away is another of the most disheartening decisions the network has made. But in the end I wasn’t surprised. For the People was a legal drama about our system at its best; Murder was a legal drama that argued our system only existed to be manipulated by the worst.
I haven’t watched a single episode of Murder since the end of Season 4, and even the fact that it’s ending doesn’t exactly fill me with a desire to see how it finishes. At its center, this was a legal drama that made no sense. Annalyse’s inner circle would commit murders, and ultimately frame their own clients or sometimes completely innocent people to protect them. Now, you can make argument — however flawed — that the deaths in Scandal were for some greater purpose: ‘to save the republic’. But when you’re a defense attorney and you’re charging your own clients of crimes that you’re committing, that may be the most cynical reading of the legal system possible. Over and over when I was watching the show, Annalyse kept teaching her students ‘to be like her’. Leaving aside that she was a criminal, she was an alcoholic, affectless, companionless woman who didn’t even really seem to like the students she taught. Why would any lawyer want to be like her?
Much of the final season has been based on the Governor and the Bureau investigating Annalyse for her crimes. So in other words, we are hoping that Annalyse manages to escape responsibility for all of the horrible things she does? In Damages, Ellen Parsons spent the better part of the series trying to bring down Patty. I suppose if Nowalk really had written the series, Ellen would have ended the show as murderous as the woman she aspired to be. Viola Davis is a great actress (better, in some ways than Glenn Close was) but she can’t sell this bill of goods, and she never has been.
Broadcast TV has made many attempts to deal with the drain that cable and streaming have put on it. ABC’s determination to put all its eggs in the Shondaland basket has been one of the worst blunders they’ve ever made. I don’t know what the new normal for television will be when the new season begins. What I do know is that it can only be better without Rhimes and her series as a part of it. There are still a lot of great shows on Broadcast TV, and I’m well aware that we need diversity in front of and behind the cameras. What we don’t need is any more of Shondaland’s series. All that we seem to have gleaned from them is that African-American female protagonists can be just as bloodthirsty as the Walter Whites and Tony Sopranos. We’ve also learned that African-American showrunners can write as many potboilers as Jerry Bruckheimer. Now let’s hope we can get more of the former with better stories from the latter.