How bad can an exciting, ambitious show get before it becomes a lost cause?
Last night's episode of How to Get Away with Murder was, by most counts, a mess. (Obviously, spoilers from here on out.) There were high points—chief among them a very sexy scene featuring breakout gay character Connor (Jack Falahee)—but the case of the week was totally disconnected from the main story. We're being asked to care about murder suspect Rebecca (Katie Findlay) despite her speaking about 10 lines in the series so far. And the performances from everyone besides our lead, Viola Davis (as Annalise Keating), are all working at different pitches. The show doesn't feel cohesive yet, and since the plot is season-three-Scandal levels of crazy, it looks like it could derail any second now.
But then, in the final five minutes of the show, Murder came roaring back. After discovering disturbing pictures on murder victim Lila Stangard's phone, Annalise sits in front of her mirror and removes her wig. Then her false eyelashes. Then her makeup. Then her husband walks in, and she asks him a question in nine simple words: "Why is your penis on a dead girl's phone?"
It was a magnificent ending to a terrible episode. Twitter freaked out about those final words, and understandably so. It was a shocking line in the Scandal mold. But the scene right before it—Annalise stripping her face of every layer but the base—wasn't just shocking. It was breathtaking, courageous, raw, intense, beautiful, and honest.
For Davis, who mere weeks ago was called "less classically beautiful" in the pages of our Paper of Record, it was a scene free of vanity. Imagine any of Davis' peers in the contemporary drama landscape—Claire Danes, Julianna Margulies, Kerry Washington, Lizzy Caplan—not just appearing without makeup, but actually removing that makeup herself, completely free of vanity. To watch a dark-skinned black woman—one currently headlining network TV's number-one new show—remove her wig and show her natural hair was nothing short of historic. (It's also something near and dear to Davis' heart, as she also debuted her natural hair at the Oscars two years ago.)
In a television climate that rewards the glamorous and striking, it was an astonishing scene. It also seemed highly unrelated to everything else that had just happened on How to Get Away with Murder. Such an understated moment felt directly at odds with the histrionics surrounding it. But with that scene, Murder earned my loyalty for the rest of the season. The show may not be perfect, but it just did something I've never seen on mainstream broadcast TV before. And that makes it worth watching.
Television is a repetitive medium. One drama with a female lead and a one-word title does well (Revenge), leading to others (Scandal, Betrayal). An acerbic jerk who is great at his job (House) spawns imitators (Lie to Me, Nurse Jackie). One singing competition (American Idol)? Why not three (The Voice, The X Factor)? That's why when something truly original comes along, it can be hard to let go—even if the execution isn't quite there. The greatest example of this for me personally is Smash. It was never a good show, but it was about people in the theater world putting on a musical—name another broadcast show doing the same thing.
Obviously, being different is not an absolute good. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was certainly unique as a dramedy full of whiny characters who thought their work as sketch comedy writers was going to save the world. It also happened to be terrible, from premise to execution (in a way, though, I credit creator Aaron Sorkin and NBC for trying it out). Smash, on the other hand, retained a loyal following because of its premise, even though the execution was regularly disheartening.
Smash and Murder aren't the only shows that transcend their worst moments. FX's American Horror Story can often be wild and seemingly aimless, but it paints in bold and brash colors. When you watch Jessica Lange singing David Bowie's "Life on Mars" in a season all about a freak show, you know Ryan Murphy's doing something right amidst all the insanity. Jane the Virgin isn't the first telenovela adaptation in America (R.I.P. Ugly Betty), but with guest stars like Paulina Rubio and Juanes, it's allowing for more connection to its Latin roots than others. Faking It had an uncomfortable premise—girls faking being lesbians to get popular—but the show got a chance to grow out of that. Lo and behold, it's now exploring some really intriguing, untidy details about being a teenager.
There will always be cop shows, lawyer shows, doctor shows, gritty cable dramas, ensemble comedies about hot friends in a major metropolitan area, etc. The successes of previous shows in those molds guarantees audiences will continue to see imitators. But as pop culture continues to divide and becomes more and more micro, it's to networks' benefit to diversify their programming. ABC is in good shape there: With Murder, the network's got a subversive, morally ambiguous show with a phenomenally talented black actress unafraid of going to a dark place at its core. And the show's a hit. If viewers stick with it, and it's allowed to be truly itself, that will be worth lauding—even if the individual moments don't always work.