Let's be clear, there are few things as ridiculous as a Shonda Rhimes plot. Her wildly successful shows, Grey's Anatomy, Scandal and the talk of the new fall television season, How to Get Away with Murder, are part soap operas and part romantic dramas with some Aaron Sorkin-like holier-than-thou speech-making and as close as you can get to softcore porn on network television thrown in for good measure. These are shows that stimulate the most base instincts of the brain but manage to engage the critical thinking part just enough to make them some of the most insanely compelling and entertaining stuff ever to fit into a one-hour time block. It's intelligent fluff, so long as you don't dwell too long.
In this way, Rhimes shares some interesting space with science fiction. There's no question that what you are watching is batshit crazy, makes no sense and is nearly as confusing as a Stephen Hawking text, but who cares? That is why it is called suspending disbelief. As Captain Janeway, a strong underrated female character from Star Trek: Voyager (much like Rhimes's heroines), once said of time travel, "I find it's best if you just don't think about it."
With two of the most popular shows on television from Rhimes and her latest smash success -- if tweets and stories after last week's debut of How to Get Away With Murder are any indication -- airing back to back to back for ABC Thursdays, the network has clearly gone all-in on Must-See Shonda, and chances are, they are going to win.
I'm not going to get into Grey's because I never cared for medical drama (or the idea that a McDreamy and a McSteamy are actually things) and I've already documented my love-hate relationship with Scandal in this space, so for now I'll stick with HTGAWM, which was off and running in a fast-paced (to put it mildly) premiere that had everything you could want from a Shonda joint.
There were pretty people. There were conniving people. There were pretty, conniving people. Everyone has a secret and the bits revealed were just enough to cause fans to gasp with glee, from the reveal of who was murdered at the end of the first episode to the random, rather graphic gay guy sex smack dab in the middle of the show.
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In fact, Rhimes's shows have graphic displays of everything, from sex and violence to greed and corruption to backstabbing and deceit, despite a surprising lack of colorful language to go with it (thanks a lot, FCC!). They have especially pushed the line when it comes to pressing the literal flesh, with a penchant for implying (and sometimes more than just implying) oral and digital stimulation of both genders -- frankly, a refreshing break from typically boring sex scenes in most TV shows.
But like everything in these serials, it's about turning everything on ten and leaving it there. These are no fewer thrill rides than any action adventure movie made exclusively for overly testosteroned bros. Instead of car chases and explosions -- though those occasionally occur here as well -- you get choreographed scenes of suspense, all held in place by the tiniest thread of barely visible human emotion. At any moment, one of these highly unstable characters -- no matter how put together they pretend to be -- could absolutely lose it and turn into a murderous wretch. It's like Downton Abbey but set in a Vegas brothel. And HTGAWM wasted no time diving into the deep end of Rhimes's special brand of unhinged. Viola Davis is complicated and brilliant, all the things we've come to expect from an award-winning actress of her caliber. Much like Kerry Washington's Olivia Pope, Davis's Annalise Keating is complicated and far more delicate than the dictatorial professor persona she put on in the first ten minutes of the show. She's tough and hard, sure, but like Pope, desperately clinging to that facade to keep her grounded. If one episode is any indication, it isn't working.
Like the other Rhimes shows, there is a cast of young, attractive, troubled people at the epicenter of it all. In this case, they are law students embodying all the stereotypes we imagine: the kid in over his head, the overly confident smarmy guy, the hot overachiever, the frat guy living off daddy's money and the self-righteous brainiac. And in the sprint-fast opener, hairline cracks in the exterior of each of their lives were revealed offering clues as to what they might be capable of in a show that has the word "murder" in the title.
It rounds out a night dominated by Rhimes, a Thursday night that used to be owned by NBC sitcoms. But there is never a moment to laugh when it comes to Must-See Shonda. We're all too busy trying to keep track of what the hell is going on. If we were to chuckle, it would undoubtedly be over the sheer ridiculous nature of what is flickering in front of us, assuming we could stop paying attention for even 30 seconds, something ABC is counting on us not being able to accomplish. Judging by week one of the Rhimes trifecta, the network appears to be right.