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TV review: ‘How to Get Away With Murder’ revels in hysteria from the get-go

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Viola Davis holds the trophy given to the most ludicrous plot twist in How to Get Away With Murder.

Two and a half stars

How to Get Away With Murder Thursdays, 10 p.m., ABC.

Peter Nowalk created ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder, but the creative voice that’s going to draw people to the show isn’t his; it’s executive producer Shonda Rhimes, whose existing hit shows Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal air right before Murder on an entire Rhimes-themed night on ABC. Nowalk worked as a writer and producer on both of those shows, and Murder follows in their footsteps, especially in its efforts to create the kind of whiplash plot twists that have turned Scandal into a social-media phenomenon. Ostensibly, Murder is a legal procedural, led by Viola Davis as ruthless defense attorney and law professor Annalise Keating. Dedicated to offering her students real-life experience, she chooses five of them to work with her as she defends clients who may seem to be indefensible.

In practice, however, the case in the first episode is completely overshadowed by the dependence on shocking developments, starting with the opening scene that features four of those law students attempting to hide a body. From there, the show flashes back to three months earlier, tracing how those students met, came to work for Annalise and got themselves involved in various shady activities. The serialized elements are the show’s biggest hook, but they’re so sensationalized in the first episode that they can come across as a desperate attempt to re-create the appeal of Scandal (which actually started out as a much more straightforward procedural).

Davis, a multiple Oscar nominee and excellent actress, is working below her skill level here, but she tears into the part of the devious and often sadistic Annalise. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare as well, and Annalise’s five students exhibit little personality and few distinguishing characteristics in the first episode, so it’s hard to care about whether or not they will, in fact, get away with murder. Nowalk sets up plenty of tantalizing questions in the pilot, and they may be enough to entice viewers to return for the next episode. But at this point, tantalizing questions are all the show has, and it zips past some of them so quickly (a subplot about a missing sorority girl literally plays out in the background until the very end of the episode) that they barely register. Scandal established a clear sense of its world and its characters before heading to crazytown; Murder seems determined to get there as quickly as possible.

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