And they were sort of great.
Jump forward thirty years and we’re experiencing a massive increase in qualitative storytelling. We need better stories and better characters as the sitcoms that we were force fed yesteryear wither and die due to changing technology. The advent of the PVR and Netflix means that people aren’t tied to watching a program at a specific time, so the old strategy of leading into a good show with something terrible no longer cuts it. Idiot programming is ignored as, in the wilds of modern television, only the strongest narratives survive.
As the medium of television has grown – and, in some cases, eclipsed the quality we’re used to getting in feature films, what with titles like Breaking Bad, Person of Interest, or Marco Polo – writers and networks have scrambled to find new trends to capture the audience. Often, quality is sacrificed for more lowest common denominator programming, such as Survivor or, gods help us, Cops. ‘Reality’ television in particular seemed like a safe bet for roping in viewers, but that fad has thankfully run its course.
Procedurals looked like another potential avenue of grabbing eyeballs. You took a basic job and added drama to it by way of interpersonal relationships. CSI, Boston Legal, the Office, and their ilk. Never mind that these shows were often blatant misrepresentations of the jobs they claimed to be highlighting, none of that mattered. We watched (and continue to watch) programming like that for the relationships between people.
A handful of writers noticed this; people preferring depth of character over dry information. The result has been an incredible shift in the ways story is being told on television, giving us such shows as Elementary, the Black List, and Banshee. All of these programs feature a strong emphasis on character, and allow things to happen to those characters.
We’re willing to forgive things not lining up with our reality, writers have discovered, provided that the rules of a given world are internally consistent and the characters are engaging.
Enter How to Get Away With Murder.
As a legal drama it’s a colossal failure. The idea of a handful of first year college kids trailing a prestigious lawyer to murder investigations is insane. As a study of humanity, and what it says about us, though…?
Each of the students chosen to be a part of this program comes from a certain subset of society, and has prejudices and perspectives based upon those origins. Every character has been thought out and accounted for, with reactions that make sense as we learn more about them, and complexities that challenge themselves and one another as they move from one scene to the next.
None of that would work without a cast capable of conveying the depth of these characters, but How to Get Away With Murder has got that covered, too. There’s a generational divide grounded by powerhouse actor Viola Davis, who towers over a group of veterans like Tom Verica and Liza Weil while bringing out the best in relative new-comers like Alfred Enoch and Karla Souza.
It’s a pleasure to watch, the perfect guilty pleasure. The legal backdrop lurks in the background while these people work around and with one another, trapped in competition to free murderers, and we get to see them struggle with an erosion of their own morality. This is a difficult show, ethically speaking, in that it lends itself well to talk of who these people are and why they’re doing the things they’re doing. It’s also an honest show, refusing to shy away from showing people at their worst or harrowing decisions made to make the best of a worst-case scenario.
More importantly, it’s also a showcase of the emerging acceptance of sexuality of any stripe as a positive, and refuses to take any of the easy tropes regarding any form of sexual or racial prejudice. A married couple indulges themselves in torrid affairs. One of the more likeable characters is gay and has all the sex. Interracial relationships are the norm. Grace and dignity belong to those who wish to possess those qualities, regardless of skin color.
The show never shies away from those moments where any of these characters indulge their appetites, regardless of what those appetites might be. Drug use, rampant sex, the abuse of the legal system for personal gain, blackmail, and worse. Every action has consequences, yes, but you can understand why any of these characters would make the decisions that bring them to each moment.
The male lead is involved in an interracial and intersocietal relationship, a black scholarship student in love with a cynical white drug dealer. Played by Alfred Enoch, he’s blackmailing his legal professor while possessing some unknown and mysterious tie to her. There’s something about him… and those moments where those two interact without words are some of the most powerful the show has to offer.
Judgement is never passed on love or even lust – but the things people do and the mistakes they make as a result of their decisions is never glossed over, either. Love and lust aren’t bad, but the things people do to protect their mistakes often are, and the consequences of those mistakes are shown with an unflinching gaze that makes the show all the more gripping.
It’s just about a perfect expose of modern human drama, and I can’t wait to see more.