I have come to appreciate Shonda Rhimes' romance with the ridiculous. She is sort of like "What if Tyler Perry actually studied screenwriting and filmmaking?" or if that sounds backhanded, my generation’s Aaron Spelling. Rhimes, along with her team of writers, knows how to carefully construct a story that includes both crazy and camp—a skill set not as common as in television as it should be. If the pilot episode of How to Get Away With Murder is any indication, those of us who have been sucked into the web of Scandal will be just as dedicated to the new legal drama starring Academy Award nominated actor, Viola Davis.
Davis plays Annalise Keating, a practicing defense attorney with her own firm who doubles as a professor at a prestigious Philadelphia-area law school. Minutes into the premiere episode, she is described by her students in menacing ways. She is deemed “the shooter” and categorized as a “ball buster” for her straightforward way of communication. Case in point, her shutting down excuses from even one of her most promising first-year law students by snipping, "The way you're whining at me makes me think I'm your mother." Likewise, Keating slams another student for “taking a learning opportunity away from another student.”
Though Keating’s tone may not be the sweetest, her means of teaching are no less substantive, and ultimately, more helpful. As Keating explains mere moments into the first day of class, she is not teaching her students how to theorize the law, but how to actually practice it. If only most college students were given such a chance perhaps those loans would at least feel more worth it.
Each year, she chooses four students to work her law firm, thus they are immediately thrown into the throngs of competition by way of assisting her on a widely publicized murder trail. Because it’s a ShondaLand affair, there is a captivating twist that will play out during the season.
Among those chosen, we are provided with the typical law student caricatures: the one who wants to be just like Annalise Keating; the idealist law student hoping to change the world; the student that seems a little behind the curve but is no less beaming with promise. But, because this is a ShondaLand affair, there are little tweaks to the tried and true TV archetypes.
There is one student, gay, who employs the “use what you got to get what you want” notion of getting things done. Enter the sex scene that resulted in one impressive nod from Professor Keating. It’s nice to see a man exploit his sexuality as a means for a come up; in the end, many of us are opportunistic whores and the small screen should reflect that more often.
And like all of her other shows, there is a sea of diversity in terms of both aesthetic and story arcs on How to Get Away With Murder. In the fictitious worlds Shonda Rhimes either creates or at least helps steer, anyone can be anything no matter the hue, gender, or sexual orientation. Real-life barriers are still addressed, but in a way that speaks to Rhimes’ progressive vision.
Unfortunately, not everyone fully grasps the subtle but meaningful messages conveyed in those works, even when they think they are. No matter what New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley thought s she was doing in her Rhimes profile, it is, was, and forever shall be offensive. You cannot champion someone for breaking stereotypes if you spend hundreds of words perpetuating them.
Stanley was correct to highlight that Viola Davis is not your typical star of a network drama. Hollywood often casts middle-aged women aside and even fewer appear to give a damn about Black women of any age. After all, it took a Black woman to create the first starring role for a Black actress in decades.
Even so, the use of the phrase “classically beautiful” was an eyesore. What Stanley meant was beautiful by Eurocentric standards that Kerry Washington is closer to exhibiting than the darker skinned Viola Davis. Okay, but in pointing that out, why not just note how wrong it is to use those standards as the defining metric of beauty?
If anything, Stanley should’ve noted that much like filmmaker Nancy Meyers, Shonda Rhimes is creating projects that allow middle-aged women to exist in a medium that has long ignored them.
As for Rhimes and her characters’ “anger,” Annalise is many things, but angry is not one of them. She may be no nonsense and a straightshooter, but that does not mean she’s angry. Sure, she has secrets, including an affair, and personal struggle, which brings her to tears. Whether or not those were sincere will be proven in due time, but no matter the verdict on that, the picture is painted in pilot: She is as nuanced as anyone else is capable of being.
It’s a shame that while Annalise Keating can teach some students how to get away with murder, she can’t teach even her “supporters’” at home to see her whole.
Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem, and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him @youngsinick.