“Good morning. I don’t know what terrible things you’ve done in your life up to this point, but clearly your karma’s out of balance to get assigned to my class. […] This is Criminal Law 100. Or, as I prefer to call it, How To Get Away With Murder.”
I just finished watching How To Get Away with Murder, a TV series created by Peter Norfolk and produced by Shonda Rhimes (known for Scandal, Bridgerton and Grey’s Anatomy) which aired from 2014 to 2020, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I believe the series is and will always be among my all-time favorite TV shows and I also know my review will have to focus on the main plot and a brief character introduction because I really want to avoid spoilers (it has been two years since the show ended but many people still haven’t seen it and would like to).
This riveting legal drama focuses on the character of talented lawyer Annalise Keating, who teaches criminal law at Philadelphia’s Middleton University. She always chooses a few students as collaborators for her class, so that they will have the chance to go deeper into the subject than the other regular students. It is anticipated that the best student gets awarded a trophy that will enable them to pass a bonus exam.
At the beginning of the first season, Annalise chooses the five students who will assist her and compete for the trophy, with the help of her two partners, Bonnie and Frank; Wes is a very smart student with a complicated past, Connor is very determined and ready to do anything to achieve his goals. Michaela is a Black student who’s very ambitious, loves to study and wants to be the best (in a way she is like a rebellious version of Hermione Granger). Asher is the son of a notorious judge and he’s in fact a wealthy guy who is somewhat insecure and scared not to be enough, especially when it comes to relationships. Laurel is a brilliant Mexican student who initially gets involved in a romantic relationship with Frank’s character. She comes from a very rich Mexican family that will also have a key role in the plot as the series progresses.
Frank is sort of an assistant to Annalise. He is not a lawyer but he is in charge of handling difficult situations that for the most part need to be kept secret. Bonnie is Annalise’s faithful collaborator and also the person she can trust the most. She comes from a difficult background, as she’s had a very tough childhood; it is clear from so many episodes that Annalise is her “savior”.
These main characters interact with plenty of people throughout the show’s six seasons, so there are a lot of different secondary characters that contribute to the complexity of the plot.
Avid readers who are watching this TV series will probably find similarities with Donna Tartt’s novel “The Secret History”, since the murder mystery elements and the college drama are present in both works. The main element they have in common is the base of the plot which, as Pop Matters.com stated, “follows talented students who are grouped together by an idealized mentor and explores what happens when they are forced to work together in extreme circumstances in the subversion of that mentor.”
The five students have to handle a different case in each episode, and they do all they can to rise to the occasion – even when they become involved in a murder along with Professor Keating, and they all find themselves trying to cover it up.
The plot is compelling, the episodes are well-structured, and the editing is excellent, as evidenced by the numerous flashbacks and flash-forwards (the latter presenting a preview of the future murder along with the characters’ reactions, lies included).
The series gets darker and darker with each new season that comes along; there are some quite violent moments as well and some scenes are a bit disturbing but everything is functional to the plot and the unfolding of the action.
The characters are well-developed and even though they are despicable at times, they are not entirely bad or good (this is how reading Donna Tartt feels to me) and there is always something human to them that generates some kind of emotion from the viewer (anger, empathy, frustration…). Credit is also due to the brilliant performances by the cast. Viola Davis is immense, she is incredibly talented ; some actors I did not know about before watching the series, but I had previously watched Alfred Enoch (who plays Wes) playing Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter movies. Also, the character of Bonnie is played by Liza Weil, who was in the Gilmore Girls series as Paris Geller (my mother and I used to watch it a lot when I was a kid).
HTGAWM deals with several major themes throughout its six seasons, such as homosexuality (Connor’s character is gay), bisexuality, love, friendship, ethics, ambition, revenge… Ample space is given to the concept of being black in America and fighting against a corrupt system; at one point it is like a political manifesto in stating social injustice and discrimination, especially in prisons. The series also has a crossover with Scandal, which I reviewed here on the blog, and their separate worlds intermingle in the course of two episodes of the fourth season. I love both the characters of Annalise Keating and Olivia Pope, Scandal’s protagonist, so I really enjoyed seeing them acting together in those two episodes.
We could call the series a legal drama that is also a dark thriller but I think it occupies its own special place in the TV series landscape, and its success is proof of that.
The series finale was about feeling so many different feels at the same time; it stuck with me, it broke my heart but it also made me feel some sort of tenderness and emotional awareness. I started watching the series in 2015, only to stop after the end of the second season, due to eventful and difficult years, including the pandemic period (when I just watched Friends). I avoided spoilers at all costs so I was able to enjoy HTGAWM when I resumed it less than two months ago. And watching it all the way through was really worth it.
OTHER SHOWS YOU MAY LIKE: I have already mentioned Scandal, which is full of intrigue but is more about political issues. Fans of legal drama will probably appreciate another series by Shonda Rhimes called For The People, which is about young lawyers beginning their careers in New York, and it places a lot of emphasis on the social justice aspect; I haven’t watched it yet but it’s on my list. Pretty Little Liars is similar to HTGAWM in its topics and general mood, although the target audience is more for teenagers and the main characters are all girls. I will admit some seasons of PLL have appealed to me more than others. I am very interested in legal dramas so I will soon be watching Suits, which is set at a law firm, and Money Heist, which features a group of young criminals and is a very fast-paced show. Elite is also a Spanish series which was influenced by HTGAWM, as every episode begins and ends with flashes from a murder, so it will be interesting to check this one out as well.
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