'How to Get Away With Murder' Blurs the Line Between Villains and Heroes

Prof. Annalise Keating specializes in helping her clients get away with murder. But will she succeed this time?

The cast of 'How to Get Away with Murder.'
Bob D'Amico / ABC

There’s a story about a lawyer calling his client to notify him about the verdict in a case he was pleading on the client’s behalf: “Justice was served!” announced the lawyer, only to be instructed by the client: “Oh well, we have to appeal, of course!”

And then there’s the story about a lawyer being approached by a devil (let’s call him Mephistopheles) who says: “In exchange for your soul, you’ll get the widest choice of high-profile cases, of which you will win all, making you rich, happy and sought-after.” The lawyer ponders the offer, and asks: “OK, evidently there’s a catch here somewhere. Now, what is it?”

Those are the two ends of the stick lodged between the wheels of any plot of a TV series that has servants of the law as its protagonists. They seem to be acting with an unshakeable conviction that they are serving justice, and try their hardest to make it carry the day and comply with the law. But at the same time they are very well aware that somewhere there is “a catch,” and the law may seem to be on their side (that is, that of their client, whom they do not judge, merely represent), while justice is being served meagre leftovers, if anything. And they can live with those contradictions very well.

Law firms and offices, and all sorts of courts, are the playing grounds of many TV series. They are a “civil” variation of the police (professional and official) and “private eye” procedurals. They have always been there, even in book form, which preceded – and set the course – of TV series (think “Perry Mason,” written by Erle Stanley Gardner and impersonated on TV by Raymond Burr, before he became Chief Ironside). They allow for a series to be built of episodes based on a case being tried in court (the same location, in consecutive sessions), from indictment as the beginning and verdict as the end, with working relations within the law firm allowing for the “arc” of a series over a season (to begin with) or seasons (hopefully).

Thus we have had, over the years, “L.A. Law,” from which John Spencer moved on to become President’s Bartlet’s trusted aide in “The West Wing,” while Jimmy Smits morphed into Bartlet’s successor, President Santos. We’ve had “Ally McBeal,” from which Peter MacNicol graduated into “24” and nowadays into “CSI: Cyber.” There was “Boston Legal,” which had Candice Bergen, formerly Murphy Brown; William Shatner, formerly Captain Kirk in “Star Trek”; and James Spader, who played the character of Alan Shore also in “The Practice.” More recently, Spader has been seen as an almost-villain in “The Blacklist.”

When the Good Guys are Bad

But the one thing all the TV lawyers hitherto had in common was that they – each in his or her own particular fashion – were ultimately the Good Guys (and Gals, of course). And here is where Shonda Rhimes, the woman who rules ABC nights on Thursdays, breaks new ground with her third offering, “How to Get Away with Murder.”

The title sort of gives the game away. The heroine, Prof. Annalise Keating, teaches criminal law at a university, while simultaneously running a successful law practice. She hires five of her brightest students as interns in her law firm, and that makes them involved up to their ears (and other organs, some of them not to be mentioned in print) in her convoluted, confusing and unconventional (to say the least) private life, which meshes with theirs. The main thing is that it’s about murder, with the killers succeeding – as the letter of the law is twisted and turned by Prof. Keating and her minions – in getting away with it. In other words, here are the lawyers – past, present and future – as the Bad Guys (and Gals, of course). Bad, but in a way loveable and deserving of our affection, as we follow them being drawn into a vortex of slime made up of jealousy, sex, love and law.

In the U.S. the series is in its winter hiatus in the midst of its second season (the ninth episode, 24th overall), the broadcast to be renewed in February. In Israel we have just started the second season, on HOT 3. By now we have at least three murders to get away with, in the main plot (i.e. not counting the murders in the cases Prof. Keating argues as a defense attorney). There is a student, Lila Stangard, with whom Prof. Keating’s husband had an affair and was suspected of her murder; a girl named Rebecca was also a suspect in Lila’s murder, and may or may not have been. Prof. Keating and her policeman lover are potential suspects in her husband’s murder.

But it’s not only about daring to have villains (whether willing or unwilling, we still have to find out) as protagonists; it’s also about having a strong, enigmatic, charismatic big black woman as the focal point of the series (in keeping with Rhimes’ way of having such a character as the queen-pin of her series, like Olivia Pope in “Scandal” or Dr. Miranda Bailey in “Grey’s Anatomy”). Viola Davis commands the viewers’ attention as her mood swings from ice-cold resolution to pained despair. She navigates between being a suspect ruthlessly interrogated in a witness box (by a former female lover and colleague), hectors her students and associates, or writhes between the sheets in the muscular arms of Nate, the black detective who may (or may not) have murdered her husband and may (or may not) have been framed by her as having done it.

Rhimes’ other innovation in the series is its time sequence. There are scenes that occur in the present – in the first season we saw the five choice students (two female, three male; two black, two white and one Latina, not respectively; one gay, four straight) carrying a dead body rolled in a carpet from their teacher’s house and burning it in the woods. By now we know whose body that was and who did her or him in (I’m not going to tell you who), with flashbacks and flash-forwards to elucidate or further obfuscate the twisted plot line.

By now, mid second season in the U.S., the viewers – about 8 million of them, down from 14 million for the first episode in season 1 – know who did it, and who has to get away with it. It just remains to be seen if, and how, it can be done, using the law wisely and slyly. There is no word yet about the series being renewed (or not) for a third season. Frankly, I don’t see how it can be done, given the circumstances and the need, ultimately, to have order restored and the culprits receiving their just (in their view unjust, of course) desserts. But don’t take my word for it, as I have been wrong before. We may still find out that one can get away with murder, as long as the ratings hold.