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‘How to Get Away With Murder’ Reviews: At Least Critics Can Agree Viola Davis Is Fantastic

Beyond its universally-acclaimed lead, the show is either the best new series of the fall, boring, a whole lot of fun, or not as clever as it thinks it is

One of the fall’s most anticipated new dramas is the third installment of Shonda Rhimes‘ Thursday dominance, “How to Get Away With Murder.” Airing back-to-back-to-back with “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” the Shondaland show stars Viola Davis in a drama sure to delight fans with outrageous twists and turns.

Also read: ‘How to Get Away With Murder’ Review: Split Verdict on Shonda Rhimes Legal Drama

Created by Peter Nowalk, an alum of both “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” “Murder” shares a rapid cadence and energy with those shows, creating a fairly consistent tone to ABC’s Thursday night block.

Davis leads the ensemble as tough-as-nails law professor Annalise Keating. Her dream team of students are made up of Alfred Enoch, Matt McGorry, Aja Naomi King, Karla Souza and Jack Falahee.

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Critics’ overall impressions with the show were somewhat mixed, but they all agreed that Davis absolutely stole the show. Some thought it was the best new show of the fall season, while others thought everything other than Davis was a bit boring.

TheWrap’s own Diane Bennett had split feelings about the premiere, heaping praise on Davis’ powerhouse performance, but was left less impressed with the student characters.

I just hope that the students become more interesting and the action less disjointed in coming episodes. The drama didn’t quite jell in the pilot, but that may come with time. ‘Scandal,’ after all, took a while to hit its stride. As a devoted fan of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ (still watching, thank you) and ‘Scandal,’ I was ready to embrace ‘How to Get Away With Murder.’ That didn’t happen with the pilot.

Melissa Maerz of Entertainment Weekly was mesmerized by Davis’ performance as well, but she enjoyed the rest of the show surrounding it, emphasizing that “‘Murder’ is supposed to be fun.”

Thanks to Davis’ powerfully layered performance, it’s impossible to read Keating (Davis). When Wes (Alfred Enoch) finds her cheating on her husband, she lays a hand on Wes’ chest, tearfully confessing that she’s having trouble conceiving. Later, she gives him special treatment in class. Is she flirting? Blackmailing him? Just acting motherly, because she sees potential in him that we don’t? Or are those all loaded questions? When someone quips that Wes could be Keating’s son, Michaela scoffs, ‘Because all black people are related?’ ‘Murder’ wants us to reevaluate our assumptions about people, and because it’s a show about a brilliant, complicated woman of color, that’s especially important.

Also read: NY Times’ Top Editor Questions Newsroom Diversity After Shonda Rhimes Fallout

People’s Patrick Gomez took his praise a step further, suggesting that “Murder” maybe the best new show of the fall season.

“TGAWM” bears all the signatures of a Rhimes-produced show. A strong, female character at the top of her game? Check. A diverse cast of unique supporting characters? Double check. But “HTGAWM” doesn’t stop there. It actually improves upon the successful formula by downplaying any romantic entanglements, which, at times, have weighed down the leads of Rhimes’s other shows.

Over at The Guardian, Brian Moylan called what he dubbed Rhimes’ take on a procedural a beautiful disaster, but wasn’t sure if it would turn into a “delightful train wreck or a tortuous inferno.”

Much has been made about this show in a New York Times essay about angry black women and Shonda Rhimes specifically. To call Annalise (Davis) angry is to totally miss the point of her character. Annalise is tough and determined, but she’s the kind of teacher that rides her students hard so she can get results. When she yells it’s not always to express her displeasure, but also as a motivational too, like a personal trainer for these students’ minds. And in moments like a tough confrontation with her husband, there is a tampered passivity that is far more complicated and exciting to watch than simple anger.

Also read: NY Times Critic Unapologetic Over Shonda Rhimes ‘Angry Black Woman’ Remark

Laura Stampler of Time wrote that “How to Get Away With Murder” combines the best of all of our favorite shows and movies into one hour, drawing comparisons to Rhimes’ other shows, as well as “Pretty Little Liars,” “House,” “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and even “Legally Blonde.”

The law school/court room/inside-the-criminal-mind drama is built to succeed: it’s an amalgam of the most addictive television out there in one, hour-long segment. That’s not to say that the show is derivative — it isn’t. Rather, Murder hones in on some of the best elements of shows — and movies — we love.

Vulture’s Matt Seitz echoed his fellow critics in praising Davis’ performance in the lead, but worries that the show isn’t as clever as it tries to put on.

It often tries too hard to wow us, when it might have been better off just telling its story and developing its characters. The pilot’s intricate flash-forward structure, which very briefly confuses the audience into thinking that a group of students are something they aren’t, seems needlessly fancy, and there are moments where the episode tries too hard to sell the heroine as a brilliantly awesome badass, layering a courtroom moment with rah-rah music, as if commanding us to cheer her. I hope they bring this sort of thing down a notch, preferably several notches.

Also read: ‘How to Get Away With Murder’ Creator on Shonda Rhimes: ‘She’s Such a Genius’

The Los Angeles Times’ Mary McNamara pointed out the differences between this and its companion shows that Rhimes did create, while echoing the power of Davis’ “magnetic and intimidating” performance.

While the show has certain Rhimes’ accents — a strong female lead, a large and diverse ensemble, a willingness to pile on complications — it is very different from any of the series she has written. Annalise wears neither a white hat nor her heart on her sleeve; she keeps her own counsel, as do most of the characters in the pilot, as does, indeed, the show itself. The first episode sets many things in motion while revealing little in terms of tone or intent.

Alan Sepinwall of HitFix actually sees Viola Davis‘ powerful screen presence as a detriment to the rest of the show, and hopes that it turns its full attention to her. He describes two shows in one battling for attention.

One is a formulaic legal procedure in which yet another brilliant, inscrutable master of the profession with questionable social skills mentors a group of impressionable young students, each week closing a new case and imparting a new lesson. The other is a complicated serialized mystery with a fractured timeline designed to keep the audience on its toes as to who did what, and why, and whether we should be pulling for any of them to live up to the show’s title … the first show has the great and powerful Viola Davis, and the second show (at least in the pilot) has a whole bunch of people who mainly remind you of all the ways in which they are not Viola Davis.

New episodes of “How to Get Away With Murder” air every Thursday night at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.