Shonda Rhimes, the Woman Who Is Thursday

The creator of 'Grey's Anatomy,' 'Scandal' and now 'How to Get Away with Murder' has been ruling over ABC's Thursday programming. Or as they call it, TGIT.

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Viola Davis, the star of Shonda Rhimes' latest series, 'How to Get Away with Murder.'Credit: AP
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

No, don’t panic. She’s not going to pounce on you from your calendar (on your smartphone, where else?) every Thursday. Nor is she a mysterious character you trusted hitherto, not being aware that she means danger, like in the famous G.K. Chesterton novel “The Man who was Thursday.”

Her name is Shonda Rhimes, and since late September 2014 she has been ruling over the ABC network’s Thursday programing: first there was “Grey’s Anatomy,” the medical drama she wrote and ran for the last 11 seasons; she followed this up with the political thriller she created and produced, “Scandal,” now in its fourth season. Her newest creation, “How to Get Away with Murder,” is a legal procedural in its first season of 15 episodes. ABC even had an acronym devised to highlight her success (about 10 million viewers or more for three consecutive hours every Thursday), TGIT – Thank God It’s Thursday.

Not this Thursday, though, or even the next. U.S. TV programing takes a break for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s Eve, allowing some time for potential viewers to recuperate. Shonda’s reign over American Thursdays on ABC will be reinstated on January 29, when “How to Get Away with Murder” will start airing the remaining six episodes of the first, critically and commercially successful season.

The American broadcasting schedule of that series is, indirectly, the reason I’m writing about it this week. HOT, which carries the show on Channel 3, didn’t want to leave viewers pining during the American holiday hiatus, and therefore scheduled the Israeli premiere of the series only last week (episode 2, “It’s All Her Fault,” aired last Sunday at 21.30, its regular slot). That way, Israeli viewers will not lag too far behind their American counterparts.

Rhimes could have equally been called “The Dark Lady of the Series,” as she tends to place strong-willed and fiercely independent African-American women (like herself) close to, or right in, the eye of the storm of the plot in each of her series’ episodes. There is Dr. Miranda Bailey in “Grey’s Anatomy,” the fixer Olivia Pope of “Scandal” and now the law professor and practicing criminal lawyer Annalise Keating of “How to Get Away with Murder.” But one should be very careful how one writes about Rhimes. The New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley wrote that Rhimes (who was No. 21 on Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people in the world in 2007) is an “angry black woman,” and was told, in print, by the Times public editor Margaret Sullivan that her piece was “condescending” and “astonishingly tone-deaf and out of touch.”

Anyway, enough about the producer; let’s get to the new series itself. Its title is also sort of a hashtag of the main character: In her first meeting with her students, she says she is not going to teach them about criminal laws and procedures. She is going to school them in the main task they will face in their professional lives: how to get away with murder.

The implication is – and that does not seem to bother the viewers or reviewers – that a criminal lawyer assumes, to begin with, that his (or her) client is guilty, and does not have any moral qualms about it. The point is to get the client exculpated by a jury of his or her peers. All else seems to be immaterial, and the aim justifies the means: The lawyer and his or her minions are expected to lie (with their words and/or bodies), steal or borrow to get the information that will lead to acquittal.

Prof. Annalise Keating is a black woman. I don’t know about angry, but she is definitely fierce. She is married to a professor of psychology (soft spoken and Caucasian; he may have been cheating on her, but it is too soon to say for certain – or for me to tell you), and the couple have been trying for some years to have a child. We do get to find out – through the eyes of one of her students – that she is having an affair with an African-American detective of Philadelphia’s finest. And she enlists five of her best and brightest students as legal assistants in her office while they are still working hard to graduate under her tutelage.

That is the overt part of the series’ “arc.” The covert underpinning has the students – and by implication the professor – trying, in a series of “flashbacks” (or “flash-forwards”; it’s hard to tell) to spirit a dead body rolled up in a carpet from the professor’s flat, and get rid of it and its DNA. It looks, at the outset, that “getting away with murder” is not legal theory, but a practice on which the lives of the students and their mentor will depend.

The new series got a lot of attention not only because of its catchy title (and the way Viola Davis, the twice Oscar-nominated actress who plays Keating pronounces it again and again) but also due to the way it sort of titillates the audience. It got noticed, for instance, for the explicit and matter-of-fact way it treats and portrays gay sex. It got commended for its daring, for its “cheek,” and for setting new standards for the way prime-time TV deals with and portrays matters of sex, mores, moral issues and legal conundrums, without getting embroiled in too many scandals and thus making potential viewers turn away.

As for myself, I’ve been following “Grey’s Anatomy” for many seasons now, and I’m sort of hooked on “Scandal,” so I will most probably start following the exploits of Prof. Keating and her five choice students, at least for its first season. No news yet of a renewal for another season, but the ratings seem high enough to make it happen.

In the meantime, at the 2015 People’s Choice Awards, Rhimes won the Favorite Network TV Drama Award for “Grey’s Anatomy” (“Scandal” was also nominated), and Viola Davis won Favorite Actress in a New TV Series. The series itself was nominated for a Favorite New TV Drama award, but lost.

That’s okay, though, as long as it gets away with murder.