Part 3b: HOW To Get Away With Murder and Criminal Justice as Soap Opera
Had it not been used later, How to Get Away with Murder would have been a perfectly acceptable title for Scandal. Indeed, at one point prior to a Presidential debate, Olivia Pope would break into hysterical laughter when she realized that all three candidates had, in fact, done just that. (I’d say that was the least plausible storyline on the series, but then came the one where the Vice President had Olivia kidnapped to blackmail his President, and…well, I’ve already covered this show.) But in many ways, Murder was even more cynical than Scandal could ever be, and frankly even more implausible.
Now I know that, technically speaking, Shonda Rhimes doesn’t deserve much of the criticism for the series; Murder was more the brainchild of Peter Nowalk. But Nowalk was one of Rhimes’ co-writers in the early days of his career, and anyway at one point, the two series would cross over so it’s really hard to not blame her for much of what transpired on Murder. You could tell from the beginning that this was in Rhimes’ vein.
(I should also note that for its entire run I have always been fundamentally certain that the creators borrowed so heavily from the Glenn Close drama Damages that an accusation of flat-out plagiarism could be made by Todd Kessler and his fellow writers. At one point, I actually intended to use this article to make a point-by-point argument as to this, but considering that both series are now finished, it would be pointless. What I will say to future generations, if you have a choice between binge watching the two series, trust me watch Damages. It is by far the better series (the Emmys actually gave it far more nominations and awards than Murder over what would be a shorter run) and in a way, it’s less cynical and has a better ending.)
Let’s start with the title of the series itself. When we meet Annalyse Keating (Viola Davis) she is teach a criminal law class with this very title. This should have been a warning to viewers right there as to what we were in for. The attorneys on The Practice and Boston Legal may have done exactly what the characters on Murder did, but we saw with every defense that it took a lot psychologically and emotionally out of them with each successive season. They might be willing to do it, but even Alan Shore was humble about it. They wouldn’t advertise it, and they certainly wouldn’t brag about it, which is what Annalyse was doing in the Pilot.
As the series begins Annalyse chooses five students to work with her for what will amount to be the length of the series. They ended up getting involved the defense of a woman accused of murder, and it soon becomes clear that one of the more obvious suspects is Sam, Annalyse’s husband. Of course, this isn’t exactly a shock because the series flashforwards to one of Sam’s murder and eventually the disposal of the body. Whatever suspense we are trying to get is to who ends up being the killer, which ultimately will become irrelevant as the longer each student remains under Annalyse’s influences, the more corrupt and criminal acts they will end up committing.
Annalyse will mourn the death of her husband to an extent, but that’s not the real twist. By the end of the first season, we learn that Sam did not murder Lila; the crime was actually committed by Frank, under Sam’s directive for reason we wouldn’t learn until the next season. (Does it really matter why?) Then in the second season premiere, Bonnie (Liza Weill, who was utterly wasted by this series and Shondaland in general) murdered the main suspect because she thought she had brought all this tragedy on Annalyse. I’m kind of stunned anybody stuck around after these two revelations. Bobby Donnell and his associates hated their clients, but at least they had the decency not to kill them.
Now I suppose this is the point where I should start making some descriptions about that the Keating 5 came from all races, sexes and sexual orientations, but I just don’t see what difference this mistakes. I’ve already said that what seemed to be the main draw for Scandal was watching these kinds of people get away with the kinds of horrible things that we’d only seen Male White Antiheroes. That’s still not much a reason to watch a series and considering the stakes were considerably lower in Murder than they were in Scandal, I’m not entirely sure it makes it any better here. Season after season, the Keating 5 (then 4, then 3) were linking in horrible crimes basically done at first to payback the people responsible and then…well, one of them would basically just say: “We’re all evil.” Not as an excuse or a defense. As a fact.
And considering how much of the series seemed to be based on the idea of bringing Annalyse and everyone in her justice, its actually kind of astonishing that Nowalk and Rhimes seemed to want us to believe this was wrong. Annalyse was guilty of horrible crimes, knew they were horrible, and yet despite being a top notch criminal attorney didn’t seem to have any moral qualms about letting innocent people pay for their crimes. Hell, in the second season, they would end up framing one of their own clients for a murder that had been committed by one of them.
Now there may have been a message in Murder about how corrupt and unbalanced the criminal justice system was, but no one in seemed capable of telling it. Indeed, during the fourth season Annalyse made a class action lawsuit against the criminal justice system the center of the story. The thing is all of it was an excuse for her to avoid dealing with all the deaths and damage that had come in the third season. And as a result, somehow, the therapist (Jimmy Smits, seriously?) ended up getting drawn in, corrupted, and on his deathbed. That is how toxic a personality Annalyse Keating was, and yet somehow, she kept trying to make people believe that she should be a role model — that you should ‘be here’
And honestly, the series wasn’t even really interested in that story or even the murders. It was, even more than Scandal, all about sex. All of the Keating 5 were sleeping with each other or Frank and Bonnie. Annalyse would have sex with a detective she was basically using to manipulate away from the crimes she was committing and a female lawyer who was an old friend. At one point, I think she and Bonnie kissed, I don’t know if they followed through, and I can’t bring myself to care. Because even more than on Scandal, there wasn’t a good person to be found. Not the regulars, not the clients, not the law and not the family. In what was her last regular role anywhere, the great Cicely Tyson played Annalyse’s mother whose life had left scars that Annalyse couldn’t deal with but who in her own way, tried to look after her daughter. Tyson was the most nominated actor for this show (after Davis herself) and she gave everything she could to make her character real, especially as she began to slip in dementia. But for all Tyson’s efforts, she just served as yet another reminder as to how damage can pass through generation. It was an old lesson when we learned on Grey’s Anatomy and Murder really had nothing new to say about it.
That’s the thing about far too much of Rhimes’ work: at its core, they’re all basically soap operas. I wouldn’t mind that if Rhimes and her co-writer would just be upfront about it: even in the age of Peak TV, we’re always going to need guilty pleasures. But they refused to acknowledge it all through Scandal and Murder’ s run. I do understand the importance of having African-American actresses as the leads of TV series, and Kerry Washington and Viola Davis are among the greatest ever. I’m just so disappointed that we consider Olivia Pope and Annalyse Keating symbolic of the great roles television can achieve — because they aren’t.
And television knows that. The same year Davis received her Emmy for How to Get Away with Murder, Regina King — another great African-American actress who could never find roles worthy of her on film — received the first of two Supporting Actress Emmys in a Limited Series for her extraordinary performance in American Crime, one of the truly great accomplishment of the 2010s. American Crime made its debut the week after How to Get Away with Murder ended its first season. There was more authenticity in any five minutes of any episode of that series then there was in the entire run of either Scandal or Murder. Yet somehow that series barely survived three seasons, half of Murder’s run.
I will talk more about American Crime at a later date because it is pertinent to this article, but for now I’ll just that its commercial failure compared to that of Shondaland’s success says far too much about how television does business. Crime had bad people doing bad things, too, but it was more the reasons and the consequences. The message of Rhimes — and too much of television in the post-9/11 world — was that, for certain people, there never were any. And we didn’t need Rhimes or anyone else to tell us that.
At this point, it would be understandable if you thought I actually thought the point of this article was to discuss how much bad television came as a result of 9–11. This is far from the case, and starting in the next article I’ll discuss some of the greatest shows and moments in TV history that I doubt could have happened in any other era.