Viola Davis is such a commanding screen presence that her involvement alone should pique interest in “How to Get Away With Murder,” the cherry on top of ABC’s Thursday-night all-Shonda Rhimes sundae. Yet the jury’s still out on this latest drama, which features an intriguing foreshadowing device to frame what otherwise feels like a hyper-caffeinated update of “The Paper Chase,” only with a criminal-law (what else?) twist. Fast-paced and frothy, with a demographic nod to the twentysomething crowd, the question is whether Rhimes and company can replicate her “Scandal”-ous past with a show that has yet to fully reveal itself.
Of course, Davis’ Professor Annalise Keating doesn’t bear much resemblance to “Paper Chase’s” Prof. Kingsfield, but her Darwinian approach to higher learning — sink or swim, kids — is certainly familiar. Teaching Criminal Law 100 to a group of ambitious, anything-to-get-ahead types, she emphasizes practical law, not theory, and a win-at-all-costs attitude that preaches it’s possible with the right lawyering to get away with you-know-what.
The carrot she dangles to her students is the chance to work alongside her on a high-profile trial. And their apples for the teacher, as conceived in the pilot (written by series creator Pete Nowalk and directed by Michael Offer), include illicitly obtained evidence and other corner-cutting maneuvers designed to catch her attention, professional ethics be damned. (This is another one of those legal shows where everyone should be disbarred before the second commercial break.)
Perhaps inevitably, with so much going on, the law students sort of blend together in the pilot (a few weeks after watching the premiere, it was difficult to remember who did what), while Davis’ scenes quickly expose sides of Keating that suggest there’s far more to her than meets the eye.
What’s hard to sort out, at this stage, is whether the early bouts of ruthlessness are just a preview of can-you-top-this behavior, which helped make “Scandal” gradually take off (perplexingly, as viewed from this quadrant) after a rough start, but which with repetition risk tumbling into camp.
Certainly, there’s enough here to want to watch more and see where it progresses, and Rhimes — whose “Grey’s Anatomy” has impressively survived into the geriatric phase — has demonstrated herself to be a skilled weaver of serialized storylines in high-pressure work settings, tweaking and adding elements along the way.
The tradeoff is that courtrooms, like emergency rooms, are such a well-worn TV backdrop that in order to stand out from the pack, some characters beyond Davis’ had better pop. Because while ABC had every reason to be patient, the recent struggles of 10 p.m. dramas offer a reminder that it doesn’t take many wrong moves to wind up surrounded by a chalk outline, even with the TV version of a dream team like Davis and Rhimes.