Whenever New York Times error machine Alessandra Stanley wasn't reducing ABC superproducer Shonda Rhimes to an "angry black woman" in her shocking, garish, racist column from last Friday, she was spewing a lot of other nonsense. But she also – in a similar fashion to how a blind squirrel finds an acorn – hit on an interesting discussion for smarter people. Namely: Who gets the credit if How to Get Away with Murder succeeds?
Stanely mistakenly referred to Murder as primarily Rhimes' show in her column, saying that star Viola Davis' character Annalise Keating was created by Rhimes in her own image. As Rhimes herself pointed out on Twitter, the show was created by Pete Nowalk, who has worked on both Grey's Anatomy and Scandal under Rhimes. The latter is acting as a guiding executive producer, but it's Nowalk's show.
This hasn't been the easiest concept to grasp – even Viola Davis, the star of How to Get Away with Murder, has called it a Rhimes show. ABC is also drawing the comparison – they released a video to promote the new "all-Shonda" Thursday block of programming featuring Rhimes sitting down and talking with Grey's and Scandal stars Ellen Pompeo and Kerry Washington, plus Davis.
Nowalk's style in Murder is highly reminiscent of his mentor's. It's not a stretch to guess that others beyond Stanley will make this mistake, even and especially as Murder becomes a success. And I'd wager most of that success will be chalked up to Rhimes' guiding hand.
The show succeeding isn't necessarily a guarantee, though. The Murder premiere, which airs on ABC Thursday at 10 p.m., is good but flawed. The show is clearly trying to emulate the formula Scandal made a smash, with some of Damages' flashback-and-forward structure built in. But remember that the Scandal pilot was a relatively tame affair compared to the rest of the series. Yes, Olivia Pope shut people down, the president kissed her in shadowy corners of the Oval Office, and a conservative soldier came out as gay. But this is a show that went on to feature a woman chewing her own wrists. Its pilot might as well have been Parenthood in comparison.
Murder, by contrast, is insane from the word "go." A major character is killed in the first episode, seemingly at the hands of other main characters. (That's not a spoiler – it's in the show's promos.) The show may not be able to sustain that level of crazy, and there's a risk that Nowalk's less-trained hand may not be enough to guide a veteran actress like Davis leading an ensemble of relatively inexperienced supporting players. From what we've seen so far (all of one episode), the show hinges on whether or not the audience likes the younger characters, students and apprentices at the feet of Davis' law professor. The actors vary in skill and likability, none quite making their mark in the show's first hour.
The show definitely has a good shot at succeeding, but it's hardly a sure thing. Considering ABC has forgotten past Rhimes failures like Off the Map (and, to a lesser extent, Private Practice), they probably won't hold Murder against her if it doesn't work out. But this creates an interesting "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation for Nowalk. If it's a hit, it's Rhimes' hit. If it's a failure, it's his failure.
Rhimes is clearly supportive of him – supportive enough to give him a chance at running with an idea he had all the way up to series order, at least. But to ABC, Nowalk is just a new creator. Will he so easily be trusted with another show if Murder fails? Failure is hardly guaranteed, of course, but if fall premiere season has taught us anything, it's that neither is success. The network clearly adores How to Get Away with Murder, and the talent on hand is still significant, with or without the green co-stars. But no matter what happens to this show, it's tough to imagine Rhimes will ever have trouble getting a show greenlit at ABC. Whether it'll be Nowalk at the helm next time depends heavily on this one show.