Fangirls, as a rule, are an excitable bunch, and I am no exception, but I have a hard time believing that even the most sedate viewer would get through the last few Fall episodes of HTGAWM without hooting, stomping, yelling, clapping, screeching, cussing, and/or some combination thereof.
Well, I hope I’m not the only one acting the fool every week, anyway.
HTGAWM is the long-time-coming vehicle of veteran character actress Viola Davis who plays the sultry, conniving antihero Annalise Keating. It’s an important show for a lot of reasons, especially in a world that has trouble viewing Black women with complexity. Now that we are in the winter hiatus of the sophomore season, I felt it a good time to take stock of just why HTGAWM is appointment TV for me:
- The Outlandish – When the promos for the 4th episode of this show harped on the “Final. Nine. Words,” and those words wound up being “Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?” we all knew we were IN for it. This isn’t a show that was going to play coy with the crazy-cakes and I, for one, LOVE it. This show’s main trade is antics and shenanigans, handling new layers of spectacle with a doff of its hat and a wink.
Fortunately the show seems savvy enough to know that it’s bonkers and revels in it. It’s hard to pinpoint this year’s ‘penis on a dead girl’s phone’ moment because this year has a general feeling of barely-contained mayhem pervading every episode. One contender is when Connor’s boyfriend, Oliver, found Phillip, with his hacking and the audience gets a reverse shot to a slightly malevolent-looking mouth-breathing Gamer Gate-esque dude peeping back at them through his own camera. I about fell over.
We later find out that not only is Phillip the long-lost biological son of the two main murder victims, Ma and Pa Hapstall, but he’s also an incest baby because they were brother and sister! See? Shenanigans.
- Acting – Viola Davis steers this ship with deliberate acting choices and the ability to change on a dime like the master manipulator she plays. I still don’t know if Annalise Keating is even close to being a ‘good’ person, but she is an intriguing person, and I want to know what she’ll do next. Davis plays this role with layers. In fact, it’s evident that ‘Annalise’ is a tightly curated performance, especially in those moments where the veneer of control drops and you’re left with a distraught Anna-Mae trying desperately to devise a plan to get out of the latest firestorm while she quietly loses her shit. It’s a testament to her craft that I felt a visceral sense of jeopardy when Davis dropped her Annalise armor to pleadingly reason with Billy Brown’s Nate or when she clutched the phone to her ear so tightly during her conversation with Bonnie in the winter finale that I could feel the strain of the plastic in my own hand.
The excellent acting does not end with Ms. Davis, however. Among the murderlettes, Aja Naomi King was my stand out performer last season, and she continues to bring so much to her performance this year. In her capable hands, Michaela is a piano wire-taut overachiever who herself is putting on an act to obscure a less than privileged past. Connor’s ruthlessness from the pilot and much of the first season seems to have been smoothed out. Jack Falahee’s portrayal of Connor reaching out to Olly and embracing the stabilizing force of a committed relationship is riddled with awkward fits and starts, devil-may-care bravado, and serious introspection. Bonnie seems legitimately disturbed. The way Liza Weil delivered the title line of the episode, “I Want You to Die,” in a low, growling monotone chilled me to the bone. It helps that we know her seeming mousiness from the first season was just window dressing for a very traumatized and disturbed individual. Even Wes’s eternally incredulous ‘WTF’ face from Season 1 has given way to a squirrelly ruthlessness I find entertaining to watch this season, even though his myopic focus on Rebekah hasn’t abated.
- Character Development of the ensemble – As individuals they shine, but it’s even more evident in the second season how well the ensemble interacts. Like any group that’s been through an intense experience together, the comfort level of the Keating 5 has really settled in this second year. The best screen partners have to be Connor and Michaela. Once fierce rivals are now intimate friends. When they all stop digging through piles of papers or scheming to win cases and just hang out, lazily calling dibs on each other in a theoretical threesome it feels natural. This leads me to the next point:
- The cast loves each other. I feel like some of the ensemble gelling is owed in large part to the cast, who seem to adore one another. Cast cohesion shows up on screen and that makes it more fun to watch.
Just look at them!
- The Pedigree – Peter Nowalk is the Executive Producer and showrunner of HTGAWM. We all know this. Much was made of it when the New York Times wrote an article attempting to slander-by-simplification the show before it had even debuted and Shonda Rhimes had to get them together. However, like the two shows that precede it in the ABC TGIT lineup, this is a Shondaland production, and Nowalk learned his stuff working on Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy. Plus, Shonda Rhimes is the name we know and trust with our over-the-top, heartfelt drama, and it’s a joy to see a Black woman expand her empire.
- The sex – Allow me to be shallow for a second. This cast is a veritable smorgasbord of beautiful, sexy individuals. They vary broadly in age and aesthetic, and I enjoy seeing them rolling around in various stages of undress. I also appreciate that this show does not skimp on heavily implied oral. I think it’s noteworthy that not only is Annalise a 50 year-old woman having unapologetic, passionate sex on a fairly regular basis, but she’s also a queer woman who has sex with another stunning 50 year old woman, Eve. (Confession Time: I have had a low level thing for Famke Jannsen since she emerged from a status pod as Kamala on Star Trek: the Next Generation)
- Representation – As a bisexual Black woman with 4C hair, seeing the character of Annalise lead one of the biggest shows on television is pure joy. In fact, the entire main cast and recurring characters are a mixture of races, ages, and sexual orientations, which is a huge breath of fresh air. As I get older, I find myself less and less capable of watching all-white shows.
In recent years, it’s become more common to name the different parts of white supremacy and to call them out when they are evident. The white-as-default phenomena is perhaps the most impressive form of white supremacy, since white people are the vast minority in the world, and perhaps the most insidious, because on the surface it doesn’t seem like a form of violence or erasure but it is. HTGAWM and the rest of the Shondaland lineup are not interested in feeding me homogeneity pudding. In fact, Shonda once said, “I really hate the word ‘diversity,” … It suggests something as… other. As if it is something special, or rare. Diversity! As if there is something unusual about telling stories involving women and people of color and LGBTQ characters on TV. I have a different word: normalizing. I’m normalizing TV. I am making TV look like the world looks.” HTGAWM doesn’t stop with the main cast either; even the guests and recurring characters are a nice mix of demographics.
- Social Commentary – Representation renders visible what has been ignored or purposely obscured. HTGAWM has delved into issues like the corruption of the American justice system, white privilege, domestic violence, misogyny and transmisogyny, to name a few. One thing I do grapple with – and this happens when I watch Empire too – is important perspectives are often spoken out of the mouths of liars and criminals. Ultimately, however, even when put into the mouth of a law student trying to twist the concept of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ pretzel-like until an acquittal falls out for their guilty ass client, these things need to be said in the mainstream.
- The community –This show tends to be event television every week, and it has a passionate following online, especially on twitter. Multiple intense things happen in the hour and especially in the last five minutes, and it’s fun to cut the tension by participating in the hilarious #HTGAWM, #HowToGetAwayWithMurder. and of course #DatMurda hashtags.
- Fan interaction – The enjoyment of live tweeting is increased by the cast and crew fully participating right alongside us and interacting generously. It seems to be standard operating procedure for Shondaland shows actually. I always enjoy Viola Davis’s “Sum up your reaction using: some mix of gifs/pics/emojis/words” tweets. It’s almost a special feature provided to you for watching live. For their part, the promo department gets in on the act by dropping screen shots with notable quotes throughout the show, thus highlighting and immortalizing moments almost in real time.
So there you have it, my Top 10 reasons I love HTGAWM. What are yours?
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