Even Oscar nominees don’t always get what they want. On the downtown L.A. set of ABC’s new thriller How to Get Away With Murder, star Viola Davis (The Help) is shooting a scene in which her character, high-powered attorney and law professor Annalise Keating (imagine a female Alan Dershowitz with better hair and clothes), is defending a client pegged by police for the death of a local college student. ”How are we to know if the confession was coerced or not, Your Honor?” she barks at the judge. But the court authority is not impressed: ”I’m setting bail at $1 million.”
Big stakes and even bigger surprises are precisely how Murder plans to hook viewers. At a time when audiences are fleeing network TV for more provocative cable fare, this twisty, sexy series, executive-produced by Shonda Rhimes, goes for broke with healthy doses of violence (two characters are dead by the end of the first episode) and sex (the premiere finds Annalise on the receiving end of a, um, very pleasurable experience). It’s also a legal thriller so juicy it was able to lure two-time Academy Award nominee Davis to TV, and even push her to get a little raunchy. If viewers thought Scandal was a speed-plotted roller coaster, then Murder, created by Rhimes protégé Pete Nowalk, is the latest hold-on-for-dear-life addition to the Shondaland theme park. ”Literally I’ll be reading a script and stop to pick up the phone and call Pete and go, ‘Did you just do that on page 30? That’s insane—in the best way,”’ says Rhimes. ”It’s been a long time since I’ve been excited in this way by how someone’s telling a story.”
Nowalk learned his craft from the best. The writer, 35, honed his bold storytelling while working under Rhimes herself as a writer on Private Practice, Grey’s Anatomy, and Scandal. ”People look down on network TV, and she doesn’t give a s—about that,” says Nowalk. ”She really just puts her blinders on.” Last year, he pitched Rhimes and her producing partner Betsy Beers an ambitious, time-shifting thriller involving a charismatic Philadelphia criminal-law professor whose students may be up to no good. In the show’s gripping first scene, the kids dispose of a corpse in the woods—and the mystery only deepens from there. ”From the moment you heard the opening, you just went, ‘Okay, I’m so totally hooked,”’ says Beers. Relatively unknown actors were cast as the attractive but potentially murderous law students who help Annalise with her cases week to week: naive Wes (Harry Potter‘s Alfred Enoch), ambitious Michaela (Aja Naomi King), seductive Connor (Jack Falahee), quiet Laurel (Karla Souza), and douchey Asher (Orange Is the New Black‘s Matt McGorry).
Still, the team knew that the key to Murder‘s success would be finding the perfect actress to bring Annalise to life. The producers considered Davis but had heard through the grapevine that she didn’t want to do TV. After struggling to cast the right star, they sent Davis’ manager the script anyway. ”My manager said, ‘Viola, you’ve always talked about wanting to play someone who’s sexy and messy and vulnerable and strong at the same time. This is it,”’ recounts Davis, who doesn’t watch much TV but admits to loving Oxygen’s true-crime series Snapped. ”[She] resisted it because she was like, ‘Do I put Viola Davis on TV?’ And after reading the role I said, ‘Well, you can put this Viola Davis on TV.”’
Alongside Kerry Washington (Scandal), Halle Berry (Extant), and Octavia Spencer (Fox’s new Red Band Society), Davis is proof that the best black actresses in the business are finding challenging, complex roles—at least on TV. ”I think Kerry Washington really changed the game,” says Davis. ”People began to wake up to the fact that, yes, a woman of color can lead a show and people will watch and be intrigued.” It also helped that Davis, who signed a standard seven-year contract, got ABC to agree to no more than 15 episodes a season (in lieu of the traditional 22 for a network drama), leaving time for other projects during the hiatus.
Though it will have fewer episodes, Murder isn’t skimping on plot. The drama introduces two mysteries in its premiere: the aforementioned dead body and, later, the disappearance of a college student—which may or may not involve Wes’ odd neighbor (Katie Findlay). Each episode will track both mysteries and include a case of the week. And Nowalk promises there will be satisfaction: ”By the end of the first season, you’ll find out who killed both of those people and why.” Just don’t ask the cast whodunit. Nowalk has revealed the ending to the writers and producers, but he doesn’t plan to share it with the actors until the last minute. ”They talk to you [reporters] all the time,” he says. Enoch confirms that the cast is in the dark: ”It’s one of the things I’m most desperate to know! Because we’re all like, ‘Well, what if it’s me?”’
The one mystery without a definitive answer is, What is next for Shonda Rhimes? ABC has so much confidence in the Rhimes brand that its entire Thursday-night lineup is a Shondaland smorgasbord, starting with Grey’s, building to Scandal, and serving up Murder as dessert. ”I try not to pay attention to ratings,” says Rhimes. ”But I do think it’s very lovely that they have that faith in me.” While their company has obviously had great success with hour-long ensemble dramas, Beers says they’re looking to diversify. ”We’re hopefully developing a couple of comedies this year,” she says, adding, ”Movies are always a possibility.” But the next phase of Shondaland may actually be exemplified on this new series, which is fittingly about a teacher and her students. ”There are the shows that I write and create myself,” says Rhimes, ”and then there’s what I think is the real future of Shondaland: fostering the talent of other writers.”
If Murder is a hit, Nowalk has a plan for years of drama to come. ”The great thing about what happens to Annalise and these kids is that it’s something that changes them for life,” he says. ”So there are ripple effects that can give us seasons and seasons.” Does Davis know what would be in store for her in season 2? ”No, and if I did I wouldn’t tell you because I would have to kill you.” She laughs. ”I don’t wanna be on Snapped!”