Or as I call this show, Pretty Little Lawyers. Why? Because it feels EXACTLY like embattled ABC chief Paul Lee taking his biggest hit at ABC Family and greenlighting a grown-up version. Right down to the cluster of liars being at the mercy of a person whose initial is A. One of them is even sleeping with a direct supervisor, just like Aria and Ezra, except without the whole statutory rape thing that ABC Family seems to think is super romantic.
The episode begins with the Pretty Little Lawyers discussing a dead body they found somewhere, and whether/how to hide it. Someone just might get away with MUUUURDER. If he/she does not, that person should sue Annalise Keating for misrepresenting the content of her own class. Half the group wants to ignore it, half wants to clean it up, and they decide exactly the way all important non-homicidal choices are made at GFY HQ: They flip a coin. I can’t even tell you how many times Intern “Rosencrantz” George has had to clean out the lint traps.
As the coin is flipped up into the air, we rewind three months to the group’s first day at Middleton University…
… where the law school is housed in a building whose only name is Middleton Law School. Not, say, The Fitzgerald Grant Building that houses the law school, or even The Robert Kardashian Law School at Middleton University. Just Middleton. Middleton everywhere. I know Carole and Michael’s party business does well, but this is a LOT of donor dollars.
The professor our intrepid youths got is Annalise Keating, played of course by Viola Davis in oxblood:
It’s red leather because MUUUURDER. She even wrote the damn sentence on the blackboard and capitalized the M. Rather than teach them the theory of law, she’s essentially teaching them to bend it to their wills. She also wants to get her students doing her work for her — think Legally Blonde, but meaner — and so she has them break down her current case and try to come up with a defense that’s better than the one they’re strategizing. She’ll pick the four most promising kids, and let them work at her firm helping people get away with MUUUURDER.
A secretary almost kills her boss because she OD’d him on some medication or other. Annalise hauls all the students over to interrogate the client in this massive and ridiculous group setting — I mean, at this point, just bring her to your classroom, maybe? — and the woman claims she was in love with her boss and would never hurt him, and she mistook the aspirin for his blood-pressure medication, and it was an innocent mistake, sniffle sniffle sniffle. It’s a pretty boring case, and, SPOILER, the woman totally did it in cahoots with the philandering boss’s wife, and Annalise and her staff knows that. But you can’t call a show How To Get Away With MUUUUURDER if the first episode doesn’t involve someone doing exactly that. How To Set Innocent People Free So That They Can Live Long and Fulfilled Lives is a dramatic snore.
A statue of the Scales of Justice, which Annalise says is an Immunity Idol. Whoever helps her the most gets to use it once to get out of a test. This statue is also soon to become a MUUUURDER weapon. ‘Tis the scales of INJUSTICE.
The blonde has a name — Bonnie Winterbottom, which is A Name, and will only fit her when she’s 65 and someone’s doddering housekeeper — but she will always be Paris from Gilmore Girls. It will be revealed later that Paris is totally in love with Annalise’s husband, although we don’t yet know if it’s reciprocated. Frank up there is supposed to be the sexy brute, oily and lascivious, whom Paris cautions to stop screwing the students. Frank is neither hot enough nor charismatic enough to pull off this part — at least, not from what we’ve seen. Granted, it’s only the pilot. But isn’t making sweeping, potentially inaccurate judgments what pilots are all about?
The student contestants:
First up: Michaela Pratt, the type who just stands up and speaks in class rather than wait to be called upon by Annalise. She’s the Molly Ringwald/Anthony Michael Hall in this little Breakfast Club, in the sense that she’s very smart and eloquent enough to write an essay that would deliver a relentless burn to a jerky principal, but is also confident and well-dressed and pretty and probably pretty sure her life is laid out on a platter. She’s engaged, she’s a little snooty about her intelligence (aren’t they all, though), and her first big play in the case is to discredit the victim’s assistant. She checks the woman’s Facebook page, notices that she wears glasses, and somehow finagles the information that she’s color blind — and therefore can’t accurately testify as to the color of the pills she saw being given to her boss, or something. Here is my question: Were the actual associates at Annalise’s firm not doing any of this research? What ARE they doing? Besides pining for people and possibly also having sex with them?
Next is Connor Walsh in the necktie, who seduces a dude in I.T. at the company where the victim and accused both work, and ends up getting access to the servers — from which he pilfers an e-mail sent to the victim asking him to stop sexually harassing everyone. Annalise is proud of him for wanging his way to success, and he ends up winning the immunity idol. Jeff Probst would be proud. Survivor wishes there was this much nude thrusting. Because Connor is all about the naughty, he’s the Judd Nelson.
This dude, played by Orange Is The New Black’s Matt McGorry, is thus far the worst-defined. He does nothing for me at all. His name is Asher Millstone, and he seems like kind of a pig, maybe, based on comments he makes about the client. He also and enjoys he sound of his own voice (again, don’t they all?), and throws around street slang that sounds completely insincere and mannered coming from his mouth. He’s like the guy who wants you to think he’s a cool dudebro but actually daddy bought his way in, and in fact is probably Asher Millstone VI, with a father who’s a senator, or something. Ergo, I’m christening him the Emilio Estevez, possibly living out other people’s expectations and trying a little too hard to make it land.
Otherwise, he doesn’t register much at all, and in fact, is not present in the Scenes of MUUUUURDER Future, which led me to believe he was the victim.
This is Laurel Castillo, who we’re supposed to think is the idealist, because another character told us so. She is also not great. She mumbles most of her lines and glares at people through baleful eyes. Her classroom moment: While Annalise is quizzing Dean Thomas (he’s coming up next), Laurel shouts out the answer instead, except, because of her tonal issues, she actually only quietly states it. And is roundly scolded by Annalise, who says, “Never interrupt another student’s learning opportunity, no matter how smart you need people to think you are.” And it’s a nice moment, but feels misplaced on this character. They’ve officially tried to make too many of them come across as Hot On Their Own Brains, and it doesn’t land with this one. She acts more like Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club than anyone else. I want them to cut to her making a courtroom sketch with a pencil and dandruff.
Laurel’s contribution: happening to be in the women’s room and peeking through a stall and seeing the victim’s wife patting the accused comfortingly on the shoulder. She reports this to Frank and then realizes he already knew it, which sets up a little verbal foreplay in which he demeans her as a little idealistic girl from Brown who can’t handle the harsh truths and moral decisions that come from representing guilty people, and she spits that he’s a misogynistic pig. The problem is, she seriously does glare through every single line delivery, and uses only one flat tone of voice. It’s extremely one-note. Given that Frank tries to call her while they’re hiding the MUUUUURDER, I assume they begin sleeping together imminently — it is implied through facial expressions that he might’ve had a hand in Laurel being selected to work for the firm — and I don’t have high hopes for that being terribly exciting.
And here is good old Wes Gibbins, played by Alfred Enoch (Dean Thomas). Wes is adorable and adorably clueless — a combo of Tai from Clueless and Elle Woods, except that he didn’t just decide to go to law school to win back Alaric from The Vampire Diaries. He did, however, only get in two days prior off the wait list, so he’s unprepared, which inspires derisive chortles from all the other jerkwads who don’t seem to realize that the punch line to the joke “What do you call a lawyer who graduates last in his class” is, “A lawyer.” Wes gets into the trial by the skin of his teeth — no one student was allowed to present the same strategy, and he went last, so he had to pull something out of his ass — and doesn’t do much else besides uncover one of Annalise’s SECRETS. Which we will get to in a minute. He’s adorable but there’s a quality to his performance that is as if he’s having to focus too hard — something that’s common to actors who aren’t, perhaps, accustomed to having to conceal an accent. I don’t know why he couldn’t just be a British kid who’s lived in the States since he was twelve, or something, and voila: accent.
His punky, crabby neighbor Rebecca is played by Katie Findlay, whom some of you might know from The Carrie Diaries. He overhears her fighting with the school’s star quarterback (does Middleton University really have a star quarterback, or is he just the only quarterback?), and the two of them seem very uneasy about the other MUUUUURDER storyline being layered in here.
This girl was Star QB’s girlfriend, and she’s missing. The question is whether Star QB is also sleeping with Rebecca, but my theory is that she’s his sister. They seem freaked out when Lila’s dead body is found floating in a water tank. There is a LOT of MUUUURDER at this Philadelphia seat of higher learning.
Annalise wears a lot of dark stuff while she’s in the courtroom, being as she’s defending a guilty client and all.
She looks extremely foxy in this black-and-white number as she casually dismembers the credibility of one witness.
This is what she wears when the class is pitching its ideas to her — and she’s in light colors here because, yeah, she’s judging them, but she’s also their hope for a job. And like Diane Lockhart before her this week, she’s got a huge chain necklace that’s basically an ACTUAL CHAIN, and it’s hanging around her neck because of symbolism.
I wish you could see this suit better. Trust me that it’s well-fitted and attractive, though also monochrome. Annalise is also wearing it when Wes Gibbins comes by her office later, with a really banal idea for their defense which she would be embarrassed not to have thought of herself. It seems unrealistic that he’d interrupt her late at night with an idea that’s totally run-of-the-mill; you can see Contrivance in the background warming up with some pull-ups. Because also, oh, whoops, Frank left the front door unlocked, so Wes walks in on this:
Annalise was sitting on her desk being pleasured by an extremely hot shirtless man (it was really kind of him to remove his shirt for that — the kind of thing that really earns you that extra star on Yelp). This is not a great screen grab except for how the light is gleaming off the glorious sculpted form of actor Billy Brown. THANK YOU GOOD SIR. Amusingly, Annalise seems unperturbed by this, although Billy is annoyed. You’d think it’d be the other way around.
Also, can we talk about how dumb Billy might be? Imagine you are covertly pleasuring a married woman in her office, with her body and her desk blocking you from view. You’ve also got the cover of darkness working in your favor, and you are also married. When a strange person interrupts this act which YOU are fully aware is illicit, do you: a) duck, as you are already kneeling on the ground behind a large opaque piece of furniture; b) stay put, because her pelvis is not a window, and thus you are safe there; or c) stand up to give the interloper a clear view of your face, before yelling at the person to go away. If your answer was A or B, you are officially smarter at life than Billy is.
We dip into the present briefly to find out that a) the kids decided to go back and clean up the crime scene, which is Annalise’s office; b) they are going to dispose of the body, which they have wrapped in Annalise’s rug, and c) the cops saw them leaving, but got so distracted by the rioting on the school’s annual bonfire night that they accepted the gang’s slender excuse of needing to torch Annalise’s rug for her. The coolest liar here is Michaela, who’d been resistant to participating, but saves their bacon with a fib about calling Annalise to clear it up but being nervous about disturbing her the night before her mother’s funeral. The old Dead Parent gambit stops the cop in his tracks and he lets them go with a warning to move their car, which is blocking the sidewalk. I look forward to the moment when the cop runs into Annalise and asks how she’s coping with her mother’s death. Or, better, the moment when her mother, played by Cicely Tyson (or is she too old?), visits.
Back in the past, Wes Gibbins walks into Hogwarts and is like, “Dang, I feel like I’ve been here before. Accio Hermione Granger.”
Here we meet Annalise’s husband, Sam, played by Tom Verica, who must have a pretty occasional role because he’s also a directing producer on Scandal. I wonder if they had trouble casting this role and Shonda called in a favor. Anyway, Wes is startled to learn that she’s not married to the Oral Sexer, and is thus a cheating cheater who cheats, as all wide-eyed young men are when they find out that Sometimes People Are Mean.
In a great, creepy, beautifully acted scene in which Viola Davis plays about ten things at once, Annalise corners Wes. He immediately blubbers an apology for walking in on her and promises not to say anything, but she cuts him off with a tremulous story about how she and Sam are trying to have children and it’s put a strain on her marriage. As tears snake down her shaky cheeks, she chastises herself for how lame her excuse sounds, and how she’s probably making it worse, and Wes immediately tries to soothe her. And THEN Annalise pats his chest to thank him, which turns into a most definite rubbing, before he excuses himself. Alone in the room, she slowly composes herself, and seriously, the miracle of Viola Davis is that you not only have NO IDEA which of those things was the truth — the marriage trouble, the self-doubt, that she played to his sympathies, the lascivious touching — but you suspect that in fact ALL OF THEM are true. It’s wonderfully layered, and by far the best moment of the hour.
Viola also rips her associates a new one — including somewhat hypocritically asking Frank which “slutty undergrad” he was nailing instead of doing his job — for missing a piece of surveillance video of their client buying suspicious pills. Annalise vows to take care of it, irritated that she is now having to earn HER salary, and her solution is…
… raking her boyfriend across the coals and then basting him with Busted sauce. He is Detective Nate Leahy, and he was on duty the night the tape came into the police station. She ruthlessly asks him where he was that night — knowing he was with her, daring him to admit he wasn’t at work nor at home with his cancer-stricken wife. His lack of alibi means the video was unaccounted for between the time it came in and the time it was reported as evidence, or some such, which was a matter of many hours, and he admits that it could have been tampered with. Case (and boyfriend?) go boom. Except, probably not. You don’t hire an actor that hot and have him disappear. However, him being A FREAKING COP WITH A DYING WIFE makes it even DUMBER that he revealed himself in her office, in a moment where NO REVEALING WAS REQUIRED (even if I am grateful we got to ogle his muscles).
Annalise then puts on a fabulous green trench coat. Oh, and I guess there is plot. She adds a fifth slot to her staff roster for Wes (the other are, yes, Michaela, Laurel, Connor, and the ineffectual Asher). He confronts her about whether this is bribery, and she spits back that she doesn’t want him if he has that little confidence in himself. She’s a master of psychology — being married to a professor of it surely doesn’t hurt — and it works, and Wes concedes and accepts his spot. And I kind of want them to have an inappropriate relationship. She would DOMINATE HIM in the best way, and I’m bored in advance of the Rude Neighbor With Piercings and a Heart of Gold thing.
Cut to Annalise’s home, where Sam has just heard the news that Lila — the missing girl — has been found dead. Turns out she was one of his students, and as he sits there dazed, Viola purrs, “I bet the boyfriend did it,” and then they swap this SUPREMELY loaded glance. So she clearly thinks he was sleeping with the dead girl, and he might ALSO be sleeping with or leading on her associate, while SHE is hooking up with the detective and stroking Wes’s nipples over his shirt. This thing might be out-sexing Scandal.
Oh, and that corpse? Not Asher.
Nope, it’s Sam, dead as a doornail, and getting burnt to a crisp because it’s Bonfire Night and so the students figure that will camouflage the smoke from their MUUUURDER cookout. The killer could feasibly be anyone — it’s a good murder mystery they’re setting up — and Viola Davis is rich and murky and compelling enough to make the show fly even when it stretches credulity. All told, I enjoyed this more than Scandal, and I think that’s mostly because Scandal’s bag of tricks feels like it was left open too long and they’re all starting to get soggy and stale. Fresh chess pieces to move around the old board are a welcome thing.