What more is there to say about Viola Davis? She is one of the most hypnotic American actors working today in a variety of stage and screen roles. Her vigor and emotional complexity are paralleled by few in her craft. She has won two Tonys and should have won the two Oscars she was nominated for, as her terrific turns in Doubt and The Help were the high points of both features.
So, it is of little surprise that the best moments in the pilot episode of How to Get Away with Murder, a frantically-paced potboiler from powerhouse executive producer Shonda Rhimes, are the few times the show slows down to hold on Davis’s face. (Contrary to the popular belief, Peter Nowalk is the creator and showrunner.) When she looks in the mirror, darts her eyes away from her husband or puts a struggling student on the spot, her eyebrows arched, Davis achieves a sense of danger and emotional depth that the rest of the series may have a hard time living up to.
When the actress takes the floor, this is hard TV to look away from. She commands the series with swagger and style, complementing its quick pace and lavish techniques. She is a terrific stalwart to steer the drama through some of the more implausible sections. The Tony-winning actor commands our attention, and she is so good that many of the other actors basking for a breath of space in this episode get sucked out.
But I digress. The premise of the series sees Davis playing Annalise Keating, a sharp-as-nails defense attorney who has the verbal finesse and intelligence of Alan Dershowitz, but the fashion wisdom of Scandal’s Olivia Pope. Her first-year criminal law class at Middleton University is a prestigious one that she reigns over like the host of a reality TV show. Her seminar is like an Apprentice for fresh-faced, wannabe lawyers – those who have little room for the dignified airs of upholding justice. They just want to know how to win trials, no matter if the person is guilty or not.
In her first lecture, Keating announces that she will pick the four best students that week to join her firm throughout their year. On any other program – take The Good Wife – this contest for a small number of positions would be a season-long competition. Here, it is decided by the end of the pilot who will take those seats. (Hint: if the character gets more than a few lines of dialogue or is featured in the various flash-forwards, it is probably them.)
See, the action during the first week of classes shifts between that timeline and three months ahead, when four of Keating’s students are dragging a body through the woods near the campus. These lost souls are Michaela Pratt (Aja Naomi King), Laurel Castillo (Karla Souza), Connor Walsh (Jack Falahee) and Wes Gibbins (Alfred Enoch). When we first see them, they cannot decide whether to leave the body in the forest or to get rid of it. (They choose the next step with a coin toss.) The big twist of the body’s identity at the episode’s end will set up an intriguing story event to look forward to as the series leaps ahead in the coming weeks.