Cooking up TV crack: “How to Get Away with Murder”


It’s not the best or most plausible TV show I’ve seen. The acting is not stellar, except for the amazing Viola Davis. But I’ve spent many hours recently binging on three seasons of ABC Channel’s How to Get Away with Murder.

I even got some withdrawal symptoms when I realized I’d caught up and would have to wait a whole week for the next episode. The show’s versatile creator, Peter Nowalk, has experience coming up with the TV show equivalent of crack (not that I’ve done the drug). He’s also behind Grey’s Anatomy.

What’s the lure of this guilty pleasure, compared to so many better quality shows? Or… how do you create TV crack?

Meaning simply: the offer is not fantastic, but one can’t get enough of it. I’ll take a stab (no pun intended) at a recipe for what makes How to Get Away with Murder so addictive (at least to some, like me).


– 1 big star
– 5-7 hot diverse young people
– 1 hit man with a soft spot
– plenty of moral ambiguity
– 1 sex scene per episode (at least)
– as many illicit and extramarital affairs as you can add
– 1 cliff hanger per episode (15 per season)
– 1 murder per season (at least)

Preparation and plot

A sexy, fashionable, powerful star (Davis), who also happens to look real rather than Photoshopped, was selected to play the lead, Annalise Keating. The point was probably to convince the show’s viewers that her subalterns (almost everyone else) would do anything for her. And it seems to be working.

Annalise is a somewhat unscrupulous professor and defense attorney who never really loses a case. She will do anything to win and see her clients go free, no matter how guilty they actually are. Do you get the hint already, if you haven’t seen the show? M-u-r-d-e-r.

She never seems to actually want the murders to take place, but they do anyway – all around her. You almost feel bad for her. Then you feel angry. Kind of like one’s narcissistic mother. She’s so toxic, but one can’t completely get away. Like moths flying straight into a flame.

And that’s what happens to the so-called “Keating 5” – the law students she selects from her class to work for her for free in her law office. Her emotionally abused “children.”

She makes them believe they are special, that they’ve won a prize. Then she cuts them down, until she gives them the next ego boost. The same with Frank (Charlie Weber), the almost always loyal hit man who may actually be a nice guy; and her assistant Bonnie (Liza Weil), whose degree of brainwashing by Annalise varies slightly over the seasons. How she keeps her lover and super ripped policeman Nate (Billy Brown) on a leash – while allowing him to be constantly hit by the proverbial truck – is just heart-breaking, though.

Annalise’s class is called – you guessed it – How to Get Away with Murder.

Going in, the “Keating 5” (whose acting chops vary) have no idea how literal that will be. Like her, they are somehow irredeemably screwed up in the head. They all had bad childhoods. And Annalise has been searching for a replacement for her child and family. So what does she do? She causes more losses. Or is she a victim, too?

Apparently the trick has been to lure viewers in during a more solid and plausible first season, and then gradually become less solid and plausible. All the murders and intricacies do get a bit ridiculous, but by then, you’re hooked.

Mix, mingle and match 

Something I really like about the show is its array of races and sexual preferences. Though in a viewer’s own group of associates there may not be nearly as much diversity, I give the show kudos for trying to be representative of the general population within their clique. I guess they’re trying to appeal to different viewer demographics, as well.

What’s missing here, perhaps, is exploring what it’s like to be a minority in the US.

The show features members of minorities within minorities, some of them being particularly marginalized in real life. Mostly they don’t seem to suffer prejudice in How to Get Away with Murder, though. Maybe because they mostly just deal with each other and the small collateral damage characters.

There are interracial couples in the show, some of which last longer than a few episodes and mishaps during the course of living on the wrong side of the law. Connor of the “Keating 5” (Jack Falahee) and his boyfriend Oliver (Conrad Ricamora) are an example. Also, one of them has HIV.

Annalise herself engages in an interracial same-sex relationship for a while. She’s also had a white husband and black boyfriend going at the same time.

Meanwhile, Mexican beauty Laurel (Karla Souza) seems to be looking for her gangster dad in men after joining the “Keating 5.” Her colleague Wes (Alfred Enoch), an orphan of Haitian background, gets involved with women of different races – though not men. Whether Laurel is one of them, and how well love turns out for him, you’d have to see for yourself.

There’s also a complicated story between Annalise and Wes, which unfolds (and perhaps unravels) little by little across episodes. Did they or didn’t they…?

And then there are the apparent stereotypes among the “Keating 5:” Asher (Matt McGorry), the wealthy white boy jock with daddy issues, in a very different role from the prison guard he played in Orange is the New Black; and Michaela (Aja Naomi King), the driven, rags-to-law-school princess who wants to be Michelle Obama. But once you get to know them better, you get to see a couple more dimensions.

There is plenty of switching partners, in more than one sense, and plenty of characters who only serve a purpose for one or a few episodes. It’s a promiscuous and volatile show. Lots of sex, but you’re not really allowed to show crotches on primetime American TV (sorry, folks).

Start and end with cliffhangers

Oh yes. Each season starts with a murder or apparent murder, and ends by posing more questions. Each episode reveals just a little bit more of the puzzle pieces, and excels at leaving the viewer hanging. And it’s never quite what you think.

Actually, some of the outcomes (besides the elevated number of murders characters commit and get away with) don’t even seem to make sense at all.

On at least one instance, the show’s makers just haven’t dropped enough hints to make the revelation guessable before the season finale.

It seems like the actors may not even know what the outcome will be until they are shooting a key episode, like the actor who plays Connor claimed at one point. He even sounded a bit confused and disappointed with what the show’s makers threw at him, after he had been portraying his character’s emotions a certain way.

Thrills and surprises at every step. Sometimes it’s a bit too much, but I keep coming back.

Now that I’ve given you a taste of this proverbial crack – will you go for more? You can be well on your way to catching up with the episodes on Netflix, though not as fast as the seasons first come out.

A Global Studies doctoral degree holder and former newspaper reporter, avid eater, pseudo-philosopher and poet, occasion-propelled singer, semi-professional socializer, movie addict, Brazilian-American nomad. In this space, she will share some of her experiences and (mis)adventures regarding various topics, with special attention to social issues.

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