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'How to Get Away with Murder' boss reflects on first season

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Mitchell Haaseth/ABC; Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

When How to Get Away with Murder kicked off in September, few could’ve foreseen that it would become one of this season’s most talked-about new shows. From Viola Davis’ powerful scene removing her makeup and wig to the boundary-pushing sex talk, the show became a Thursday night hit as the ABC freshman drama unraveled not one, but two murder mysteries that kept viewers coming back. With the Murder finale upon us, EW sat down with series creator Pete Nowalk to look back on the show’s rise to success and what could be in store for the future.

EW: Let’s go back to the beginning, what kind of pressure did you feel after the ratings came out for the premiere?

PETE NOWALK: They did come out really well, which was a huge relief. Always in the back of my head, I make the joke of, “It’s all down hill from here.” I’ve never been in a situation in my life before where I started at the top of something. I’m used to being more of the underdog and working my way up to whatever level of achievement. So to get those big ratings was awesome. I’m not going to say it wasn’t. But it was also scary knowing that it could create attention for backlash. The really good thing about when the ratings came out was we were in the middle of our season and I was so busy, so you don’t have time to think about anything except the scenes you’re shooting tomorrow and the next episode. It’s nice to be in this bubble of really intense work and making it because you don’t have time to think of all the stuff you don’t have control of.

Why do you think this show succeeded now? And do you think if it premiered at any other time, would the reaction have been the same?

I can’t say. That’s all stuff in the ether. I think Viola is a gem and people have always admired her and wanted to see more of her, so I think that’s a huge part of why it was immediately successful. I think also it’s produced by Shonda Rhimes, who is well-known and established. People expect a certain amount of quality and brand of entertainment from her. Those two things alone made us a frontrunner for having success. Everything else is just luck.

When you get crazy ratings numbers, at what point does your plan change so you can set yourself up for future seasons?

It doesn’t change because you write a TV show that it’s going to be on forever. When you create it, you’re not thinking, “I want this to be the best three episodes and then we go off the air because nobody watched them.” Your plan doesn’t change at all. The things that change throughout writing the show is you’re watching the actors and the storylines in the dailies and you’re writing towards that and discovering things along the way. That’s the only thing that changes. Otherwise, you just want to give people more of what you gave them, and you also have to top that.

How much has this season gone according to plan?

I’m not that good of a planner, to be honest. It has in a lot of ways. We planned from the beginning that we’d get to Murder Night by episode 9 and we did. The whole time we were making it, I was like, “You know what, we have leeway. We don’t have to do it if we don’t want to,” even when we were writing 7 and 8. But we stuck to the plan, which is what it was the first day of the writers’ room. We have touchstones to get to: Who killed Sam? Who killed Lila? Who killed Lila will be the big reveal for the end of our season. We’ve had to stick to that plan. We made the promise to the audience, so those things have stayed the same. Everything else we’ve been figuring out each day in the writers’ room. That’s the fun part to not have a plan and see what happens.

Is there anything you would change about the first season?

No. I haven’t thought about that at all. There are definitely scenes that I wrote that I would like to tweak or whatnot, but the lesson for me has been that things that I find imperfect, people really enjoy. We all see things through a completely different lens and react to things differently. If I went back and changed anything, the whole thing could unravel, so I don’t think so. I like it. Even when I go back and look at certain episodes, I usually hate everything I do, but I can take a positive feeling from them.

You really pushed the boundaries when it came to sex. Do you have any regrets about doing that too soon or do you feel like you can take it further in Season 2?

I definitely don’t have any regrets. I have always been surprised by the reaction that people felt like we were pushing boundaries. I’ve seen pretty sexy things on TV before. I don’t know why we got so much attention for it. I think it’s great if people think we’re being progressive and whatnot. But the sex came from the style of the show, the tone of the show, the characters, so we’re just going to keep doing that. It’s never that we set out to say, “What’s going to get talked about tomorrow if we do this sex scene?” It’s just kind of more like, what makes us laugh or giggle in the writers’ room? That’s all we do.

“He did this thing to my ass that made my eyes water” made you giggle in the writers’ room, didn’t it?

Yeah. [Laughs] That was fun. I actually think it’s deep in my memory that a friend told me something like that, so I basically stole that line from them many years ago. The fun thing about writing a network TV show is you have this box you have to write in, so it makes you think of more creative ways to imply things, which is actually really fun.

Seeing a vulnerable Annalise at first was shocking, particularly with the wig and makeup scene. But now that we’ve seen it and even seen it in reverse, do you worry about finding the right balance between vulnerability and strength to continually have the same impact?

I think I just worry about it in terms of are we writing true moments for the character—putting her in situations that feel new and fresh and not just going back to the same well. I worry about it like that, but I don’t worry about it in terms of the balance of strength and vulnerability because to me it just feels like she’s a person who has really intense extremes.

How much have Twitter and online commenters influenced the show? Like if you saw people guessing who the killer was, did you decide to defy them?

No. I’ve tried to make a rule for myself that I don’t read so much of the comments, at least while the show is airing because it stresses me out. It’s more like people have really taken to Connor and Oliver on Twitter and that makes me really happy, so it gives us more encouragement to write it. People didn’t guess that Wes was the killer, which we knew way back when, so that didn’t change that at all. I was mostly relieved that everyone didn’t see it. It never changed story, but it is fun to see what people think and it’s a relief when people are going down the wrong path, I’ll say that.

How much support and input have you had from fellow executive producer Shonda Rhimes? 


Tons of support from both Shonda and Betsy [Beers]. I’m constantly running down to Betsy’s office when Shonda’s already in the Scandal writers’ room, and saying, “What do you think of this idea?” Shonda is the best because when I need her, she’s there. She is very conscious of not over-stepping and pushing me out of the nest and letting me do my thing, but when I need help I can go to her. “I need help with this idea. Will you read this script and tell me what is missing from it? Watch this cut and tell me if it makes sense to you.” She has strong opinions and she’s extremely gut driven, so I rely on her gut when I need it. It’s the best case scenario for someone in my shoes. It’s rare that you have somebody like Shonda Rhimes to be able to go to and say, “Look at this. What do you think?” “That’s a good point, let’s change that.” It’s another safety net.

The finale is basically Murder Night Take 2, how many more murder nights can you do?

I don’t want to get stuck in Murder Night repetition at all. I think literally this all just came out of what we set up in the pilot. Did I ever think we’d have to see Lila’s Murder Night? No, but it just felt organic to the story. That’s the challenge for next year, to find new ways to tell mysteries that aren’t just about Murder Night.

How about Murder Morning? 


Murder at Lunch? [Laughs]

Do you know what Season 2 is? Are you already writing or you going to take a vacation first?

I need a vacation for sure. Where we leave the finale, there are definitely answers we need to give the audience in Season 2. Whether we give them right away or have to unravel the mysteries, that stuff we’ll figure out after vacation. There are other big holes of new storylines that we’ll have to create. That’s what I learned from Shonda. She was on record saying she didn’t know who Quinn Perkins was and look what came out of that. Luckily I have a ton of talented writers to help me figure it out.

Leaving the finale, is it clear to the audience what Season 2 will be?

They will have questions that they’ll want answered in season 2. I never want to write in a way that people will know exactly how we’re going to lay out the season. I don’t even want to know that right now. I want to surprise people with directions we take; answering things sooner than people expect and starting something new so it’s twisty. I don’t want to do a formula.

Have you been sprinkling any breadcrumbs throughout these episodes?

Yeah. Some of our storylines really end on a cliffhanger that you’ll feel like, “I want to know what happens there in Season 2,” I hope. Other things we don’t completely answer, little dangling threads from season 1 that we just didn’t have time to answer in the finale, so those will extend into Season 2.

If the first season was really about corrupting the Keating Five and bringing them into Annalise’s web, what would you say the second season is about?

That’s for after vacation. I think it’s too soon for me to even really start thinking about it because it wouldn’t be as good. Just like the audience is going to have all these months off from the show, they’re going to want to move on, and I think I will too a little bit.

What’s the dream scenario for how many episodes you do in Season 2? You want to keep it or have to keep the same? 


As far as I know, we have to keep it the same. I love the 15 episodes. It allows us to tell story faster. It’s really hard to do 22 or 24, whatever Shonda does, 49 million? I want to maintain the creative integrity of the show and let the actors have time to breathe and do other things. Have the writers go and read books. We’re very lucky that way. I like it. I hope it doesn’t change.

You changed up the structure for both halves of this season. How does the structure of the show change now? More flashbacks or what?

It’s all up in the air. We’re just going to follow the story. If the story feels like it deserves that, then we’ll do it, if not, we’ll do something else. Again, I just don’t want anything to feel repetitive or that we’re making sausage.

Shonda has always been great about seamlessly working in new people into Shondaland. In Season 2, is there a new Keating Five? 


That’s too clean for me that we would just pick up next year and she’s teaching a new class of kids, and here she’s going to rope them in. Really, what feels true is these kids are in her life like no other students have ever been. They’re bonded for life, good or bad. Whether there will be new people, perhaps, but I think Annalise as a character really feels like tied to these students and won’t let them go.

Are you considering new series regulars already?


We haven’t really talked about it.

Will Annalise still be teaching in Season 2?


I guess that could always be a question. It depends on what’s happening with her professional life, if it’s that much in crisis, but I think teaching is very important to her, so I would be surprised if she gave that up unless there was a real reason for it.

Fargo‘s second season is delving into a character’s early years. Is that something that would ever intrigue you, to go back to the time when Wes’ mother killed herself?

Definitely with the style of our show, we jump back and forth in time. Yeah, it was three months later, but we could go 30 years later if we want. I can definitely see wanting to show backstories, whether it was for the students or how Frank and Bonnie got into Annalise’s world. Maybe going way into the future. That’s all part of it.

Will season 2 be about deep-diving into these characters a little bit more?


I love getting to know the characters more and discovering things about them. We really don’t know much about them. I know a lot about them, but we have not shown the audience much. The reason for that is because that’s how I feel like I encounter people in life. You can work with them for six months and not know a lot about their backstory. You don’t have time. You’re at work. They’ve been dealing with a murder. They’re not touchy-feely people. They’re not going to sit down and have therapy sessions with each other. We’re just going at a realistic pace of them all getting to know each other and having the audience get to know them better. All the mysteries in their own lives is definitely going to be a pivotal part of the show going forward.

Do you have a bible somewhere that has this information or is it just in your head?


A lot of it is just in my head. A lot of it we’ll come up with, because it can change. The first thing you tell the actors when you cast them is, “OK, here’s what I think your backstory is, but it could change in a second.” These actors have been really game about that in just going with the flow.

Do you have a bucket list of things you want to do on the show in the future?


It’s not a bucket list, but more just like an image and you want to get there. You have characters you want to see in scenes together that you don’t see a lot. There’s a spark of something you see in the dailies that you eventually want to play, but you just need to slowly get there. Those are the touchstones I keep in the back of my head as things to write towards.

Is there anything you would never do?


I don’t know, because the minute I say that, then we’ll end up doing it.

The sophomore slump is a real problem with a lot of shows. Is that something already in your mind that you’re actively trying to avoid?


Of course. I think sophomore slump, next episode slump. That’s always what it is for me. We had it after Murder Night. I was like, “What are we going to do for episode 10? How are we going to top the midseason finale with our actual finale?” It’s always going to be there. I guess that’s what drives you to challenge yourself and not be safe. I don’t want to be safe. In doing that, you take big risks that you hope are worth it.

Do you have a sense of what could be the end of the series?


I don’t. Part of would love to keep writing it until I’m dead and see what happens when people get old. One show I would kill for that to happen on right now is Girls. I just want to check in with them once a year and see where they are. That show could really lend itself to watching an old Hannah walk down the street. I don’t see a real end because I feel like specifically Annalise I could follow to all ends of the world. She doesn’t have to stay. She has reinvented herself before. I think she can keep doing it. She’s definitely a survivor and she’s proven that. 

How to Get Away with Murder‘s season finale airs Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.