I am not a citizen of ShondaLand. I can tell the difference between McSteamy and McDreamy, I know what “Earn me” and “wine and popcorn” mean, but only because I’m on Twitter and it’s impossible to avoid that stuff. I do not pray at the church of Shonda Rhimes, holy savior of network television, or at least ABC, though she may be. But that does not mean that I can’t appreciate all that she and her brand of snappy soap have done for television, for culture, even. Her contributions, her advancements, which are actually myriad, may be on no better display than on the new series she executive produces, How to Get Away with Murder. In many ways it’s the boldest, nerviest show on television at the moment. And it’s on ABC!
Created by former Grey’s Anatomy writer Peter Nowalk, HTGAWM, as it’s acronymed, represents what I hope will be a sea change in broadcast television. Obviously, it is a rather large milestone that the show’s star is Viola Davis, a twice Oscar-nominated actress who finally has a dense, knotty lead role to contend with. Yes, it’s on a Secret History-esque law school thriller about sex and murder, but who cares. This is a 49-year-old, dark-skinned black woman leading a show on a big broadcast network in one of the best time slots on the schedule. Tenacious law professor/trial lawyer Annalise Keating has agency and depth; she has an active, conflicted sex life, she schemes, she champions, is both noble and flawed. That kind of character is a rare find for Davis, who despite her considerable talents and Juilliard pedigree has been largely pushed into roles that offer support or dole out exposition.
So HTGAWM is revolutionary, yes revolutionary, in that regard. But it is not content to just do one thing boldly, to defy one creaky, ugly cultural norm. Brazenly, it keeps going. There are two other actors of color playing leads on the show, which already makes the series one of the more diverse on the Big Four networks. But wait, there’s more! There’s also a gay character, and it’s there, for my own selfish reasons, that How to Get Away with Murder really caught my attention. Not because it’s so rare to have a gay person on network television these days, but because Jack Falahee’s ambitious, underhanded Connor Walsh is, like Davis’s character, allowed to be both good and bad, saint and sinner. And he’s allowed to have sex. Rather graphically, given the context.
In the first episode, Connor seduces a man to get a leg up in one of Annalise’s cases. In the second episode he returns for more, but just for fun. And he says to his conquest, “This time I do you.” Which, of course, refers pretty explicitly to mechanical matters of gay sex in a way that I never thought I would see on a non-cable channel. Even on cable, such allusions remain pretty taboo. (Not evenHouse of Cards dared venture into how, exactly, that second season threesome went down.) But here is this show, on broadcast primetime, referring to suchintimate things out in the open, as plainly as anything else. And Connor and his hookup kiss like real people kiss, which Nowalk told me, in a phone interview, is definitely deliberate. “I always tell the directors, I don’t want to see two men mashing their faces together. It’s not a wrestling match. I want it to feel like real kissing, like they’re actually kissing. … For me watching [other shows], especially when a straight actor is playing gay, you don’t believe the kissing. Their lips are touching but it’s more like a face mashing.” That level of consciousness about how accurate, how real, gay intimacy looks on television is rare. (Look at the limply addressed gay plotline on ABC’s own Nashville, for example.)
I’ll admit that my interest in the Connor character is partly rooted in the fact that, yes, Jack Falahee is a super attractive guy, as was his sexy scene partner. And really, what’s wrong with that? Good for Nowalk, and Rhimes (whoseGrey’s Anatomy admirably features complex lesbian relationships), and ABC for throwing some non-hetero people a bone, so to speak. (Though, I’ve no doubt that plenty of non-hetero people are also into those makeout scenes.)
What caught me off guard, though, is how oddly moved I’ve been to see how the Connor character functions on the show. Because you forget how rare it is to see a person like yourself (albeit a way younger, sexier person) kiss and get laid and just be gay on TV. I can tell you from first-hand experience that gay kids seek this stuff out desperately, while their straight peers have it in abundance. But it’s hard to find, or at least has been in the past. That lack of recognition is a lonely, alienating feeling, one that gets painfully internalized over the years. SoHTGAWM's forthcomingness about its gay character’s gayness, like it’s not only “no big deal,” but just as sexy as everything else, makes the show seem, rather deliriously, like an artifact from a new world. This is a show that hints at what the most mainstream of television could look like in just a few years—open, inclusive, diverse in an easy, natural way.
My startled, excited reaction to the Connor character probably pales in comparison to how some viewers, who have waited a long time to see themselves onscreen, feel watching Viola Davis commanding every scene, headlining every piece of marketing material. That shouldn’t feel like as much of a revolution as it does in 2014. And that the show is so cool about it, doesn’t reference its own progressiveness, its own daring, makes it all the more, well, monumental.
Plenty of more earnest shows, from Switched at Birth to Glee, deserve praise for conscientiously introducing diversity into the cultural landscape. But it’s also great to see that piousness tossed aside for something a little grittier, more sordid, less concerned with being good and responsible. It’s freeing, loosens things up, relieves the too-heavy burden of uncontroversial purity. When Gleehad its big losing-virginity episode a couple seasons back, there was no talk about how, y’know, that was going to work, exactly, for Kurt and Blaine, which is a conversation those kids definitely would have had in real life. HTGAWM, on the other hand, throws us right in there, prudes be damned, and in so doing almost forces a new perspective. The show moves so quickly and so unapologetically that the audience doesn’t have a chance to process and reject, it just runs along after the narrative. Progress doesn’t always have to be careful and hand-holding, this series shows us.
How to Get Away with Murder is not for everyone, with all its saucy banter and convenient, overly simplified legal gymnastics. The show being forward-thinking and inclusive in an excitingly organic way doesn’t mean that you have to like it, or watch it. But I hope that some people who wouldn’t normally wade into these ABC Thursday night lineup waters might give How To Get Away with Murder a chance. Because it’s doing something pretty remarkable, something that feels big and important and noteworthy, in the coolest and most casual of ways. Frankly, it feels great to watch—it’s righteous, sexy, even heartening. It’s also, y’know, pretty dang entertaining. That still matters on television too, after all.