I’ve just binge watched the first season of How To Get Away With Murder – a 2015 US TV series about a bunch of over-achieving law students who over-achieve a little too much when they murder their professor’s husband. Cue legal hijinks and shenanigans as their professor colludes with them to cover it up because she believes her husband was guilty of the murder of a sorority girl he was having an affair with (but can we be sure it was him!?). In many ways the series is very good: it passes the Bechdel and Latif tests with flying colours, it doesn’t pretend we live in a post-race and post-gender society where these things don’t need to be talked about, the core cast are conventionally attractive (if conventions are your bag) and Viola Davis as the kick ass Professor Annalise Keating is just scorching – she makes the series. However, I’m not so convinced it rates as a whodunnit – there was the odd twist or two but come the finale the surprise payoff just wasn’t big enough. So, following on from Professor Keating here are my three top tips on how to get away with murder, inspired by the Queen of Crime herself, Agatha Christie.
1: Characters Not Caricatures: If you’re going to make your core characters a bunch of spoilt, bratty law students then we need to like at least one of them. Unfortunately, the leads, whilst brilliantly acted aren’t particularly easy to sympathise with. We’re given occasional glimpses into their back stories – cue compassionless and snobby family dinners, overbearing fathers and threatening mothers-in-law – but we needed more. Without context and background the characters just become ciphers for each episode’s mini-plot (usually court scenes involving helping random guilty people get away with murder) and the series’ overarching plot – who really killed the sorority girl? However, despite their lack of depth what did make for compelling viewing was watching the leads unravel after they all colluded in and covered up the murder of the husband. Turns out being heirs to fortunes and at a top university count for very little when it comes to coping with the consequences of murdering someone. Of course, whether or not they get away with it doesn’t really seem to matter given they’re all such prats.
2: Red Herrings: The jilted lover, the heir, the jealous sibling, the conveniently placed lunatic, the rival in love and even the identical twin all make for great distractions from the actual murderer. A Christie novel basically involves tying the reader up in a tangled mess of string made predominantly from red herrings until the final reveal when the detective untangles the mess and the audience cannot believe it was that obvious all along. Again, HTGAWM let the side down by not having enough red herrings. It didn’t take too many guesses to figure out who really might have killed the sorority girl meaning the finale was a bit of a damp squib. Ideally, if the actual murderer is implicated at any point they must then be made to appear above suspicion, for example, “watertight” evidence needs to appear that puts them somewhere else at the time of the crime. Also, given point 1, it helps if we’re vaguely interested in the character who ultimately turns out to be the murderer, i.e. they’re more than a convenient plot device.
3: Hiding Things In Plain Sight: “Where’s the best place to hide a pebble?” asked the legendary Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to his stupid sidekick Arthur Hastings. The answer: “On a beach.” Likewise, the best place to hide a killer motive is amongst a whole load of other killer motives. It’s like a magician’s sleight of hand – we’re all looking at one hand whilst the rabbit or dove is hidden up the other sleeve, or something like that. Unfortunately, HTGAWM pretty much gave us all its possible motives on a platter without trying to hide the actual one. As with point 2 given that the who of the whodunnit wasn’t a huge surprise then the why of whydunnit, or indeed the how of howdunnit, needed to be more surprising.
Having said all the above HTGAWM made for compelling viewing – it was fast-paced, sufficiently twisty and full of great performances. And by the looks of the trailer for season 2 things are about to get even more twisted. Here’s to more back story, more red fish and even more killer surprises (but please don’t do what the promising series Revenge did after season 1 which was to become increasingly baffling and pointless). If the starter was medium let’s hope the second course is cooked rare.