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Viola Davis And Shonda Rhimes Team Up For Sexy Legal Thriller 'How To Get Away With Murder'

by Tambay A. Obenson
February 25, 2014 8:20 PM
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In one of those actor/writer combos that many of us have hoped would some day happen, Viola Davis has signed up to star in the Shonda Rhimes-created drama for ABC titled How To Get Away With Murder.

The project, produced via Rhimes' Shondaland production company, with her partner Betsy Beers, is described as a sexy, suspense legal thriller that follows a brilliant criminal defense attorney (played by Davis) and her ambitious law school students who become entangled in a murder mystery that could have major ramifications on their entire university as well as change the course of their lives.

Davis will play the lead character named Annalise DeWitt, the brilliant law professor and accomplished criminal defense attorney, who is further described as an excellent manipulator of people, particularly the law students who work at her law firm. And even juicier, she's married to a psychology professor, while also having an affair, and calls her law class "How to Get Away With Murder."

Rounding out the cast are Aja Naomi KingMatt McGorryAlfred EnochKarla SouzaJack Falahee and Charlie Weber.

Peter Nowalk (Grey's Anatomy) is scripting and executive producing the ABC drama, alongside Shondaland's Rhimes and Beers. 

Michael Offer will direct the pilot, which is set to shoot in Philadelphia.

If the pilot gets picked up to series, it'll mark Viola Davis' first full-time TV series role. In terms of other upcoming TV work, she also has the HBO development deal for a series about a headmaster of ambiguous moral character at a San Francisco private school, with Pariah writer/director Dee Rees in the writer/director's chair.

On the big screen, she co-stars in the James Brown biopic Get on Up coming out later this year, and is currently shooting the crime drama Lila & Eve with Jennifer Lopez.

How To Get Away With Murder is one of a handful of projects that Rhimes currently has set up at ABC, thanks to previous hit series she created, Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, most recently.

I must say that this is the kind of work that I've wanted to see Viola Davis in, and I hope it delivers. I also hope it's nothing like Scandal, which is child's play to me. And I do wish it was on a cable TV network like HBO, Showtime, AMC, or FX, where more risks can be taken with the story and structure.

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More: TV News, Shonda Rhimes, Viola Davis

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  • DREAMING | February 28, 2014 7:36 AMReply

    Am I the only one who had my heart set on VIOLA DAVIS becoming a bonafide Movie Star?? *le sigh*

  • Ava | February 27, 2014 2:05 PMReply

    I know it won't be an accurate comparison, but when I read about this, my mind immediately went to Silk, the British series. That series was about lawyers not law students, but there were some aspects connected to manipulation between characters in storyline threads.
    It would be great if this show presents some richly complex characterizations and stories, rather than just over the top shockers. It would be a waste of someone of Viola Davis' talent, should she get anything less.
    Still, I'm looking forward to seeing her on the screen.

  • slb | February 27, 2014 2:16 PM

    @AVA: "It would be great if this show presents some richly complex characterizations and stories, rather than just over the top shockers. It would be a waste of someone of Viola Davis' talent, should she get anything less."

    Unfortunately, there is no chance of that. Shonda Rhimes produced shows lack complexity, subtlety and nuance. She goes for the shock factor all the time and it results, IMO, in mind numbingly, insulting shows. I too want a good for for Viola. The woman can act her @$$ off and it would be a shame if she's stuck on another Shonda melodrama posing as a serious drama.

  • Candice | February 26, 2014 11:15 PMReply

    "I also hope it's nothing like Scandal, which is child's play to me. " Nice way to big up your own show.

  • LJ | February 26, 2014 2:12 PMReply

    I love Viola Davis...happy for her and Shonda Rhimes. First show that comes to mind is Damages with Meryl Streep...IJS

  • robin | February 26, 2014 7:17 PM

    LOL! Meryl Streep wasn't in "Damages" come on! It was Glenn Close!!!!!

  • slb | February 26, 2014 3:20 PM

    I don't really see the "Damages" connection other than the leads of the show play lawyers.

  • Phred G | February 26, 2014 2:34 PM

    Me too. Sounds like a good project. Not all that thrilled with the affair scenario(s) either. Sure hope ABBEY does not go that route with Ichabod or Lt. Frank.

  • Nadia | February 26, 2014 1:06 PMReply

    It's not even that I'm turned off by the fact that she's having an affair. It's that it's just so cliche. It's an easy reach and just feels like lazy writing to me. I'm down with flawed characters all the way. That's what makes them interesting right? But can we at least get creative with the flaws, and not always rely on the ones that are the most commonly used? She could have some other vice, or some crazy quirk that makes her even more interesting. But no, she's having an affair. Eh, not too imaginative. But I'm still excited for the series though. Viola rarely gets to be fierce and this sounds like she's going to be.

  • slb | February 26, 2014 3:19 PM

    @NADIA I agree. I'm down with flawed characters. Some of my favorite shows of all time have complex, flawed characters. But to trot out the same tired trope of having an affair, is a cop out and reeks of lazy writing. But it is not surprising considering this appears to be Shonda's M.O..

  • Ebony | February 26, 2014 12:47 PMReply

    This ought to be good.

  • andrea | February 26, 2014 12:16 PMReply

    The concept for this sounds great! Not feeling the affair stuff, though. Why couldn't they let her flaw be something like the fact that she has helped several clients that she knew were guilty actually get away with muder and how the guilt over that never leaves her and inspired her to teach others in law school how to convict such people

  • BluTopaz | February 26, 2014 12:56 PM

    How do you know that's not her flaw? Has the show aired yet?

  • cherokee rose | February 26, 2014 11:03 AMReply

    Am I the only one that remembers Viola's short lived show Traveler?She wasn't the lead but she was a series regular with a significant role. Only lasted about 8 episodes but I thought it was a pretty good show.

  • Donella | February 26, 2014 5:17 PM

    I liked her on Jesse Stone with Tom Selleck.

  • Liz | February 26, 2014 4:29 AMReply

    I think it sounds great, I really enjoy a good murder mystery and Viola Davis is amazing. Looking forward to it.

  • truth hurts | February 26, 2014 3:50 AMReply

    THANK YOU AKIMBO. People want to see Black women through myopic lenses. I love that Shonda writes juicy material for Black women to flex their acting chops. There are no saints in soap operas.

  • Akimbo | February 26, 2014 3:42 AMReply

    You'd be hard-pressed to find a non-procedural, non-genre, drama that doesn't involve adultery.

    The leads on Revenge, Nurse Jackie, Homeland, Betrayal, Glee, The Good Wife, Mad Men, Nashville, Nurse Jackie, House of Cards, Shameless, Boardwalk Empire, Parenthood, Walking Dead, American Horror Story, and Game of Thrones have all had affairs, not to mention the supporting characters on countless other shows. But sure, it's a black woman problem.

    As far as Rhimes supposedly having some need to cast black women as side-pieces:
    On Grey's Anatomy: Meredith and Derek's relationship started as an affair. Addison and Mark had an affair behind Derek's back. George cheated on Callie with Izzie. Arizona cheated on Callie. The chief had an affair with Meredith's mom. Multiple people have busted up each other's relationships. Meanwhile, neither Bailey, Stephanie, nor Avery's mom have had affairs.
    On Private Practice: While married, Naomi never had an affair, yet was later cheated on by a boyfriend. Several white doctors either did cheat or contemplated it.
    On Scandal: Fitz had an affair with a white intern who was also sleeping with the VP's staffer. James cheated on Cyrus with the VP's husband. A significant number of Olivia's clients are covering up affairs.

    Anyway, good for Viola. I hope the show is good and gets picked up. Season two of Scandal was great fun and Being Mary Jane is dull, directionless, and miserable, but the extra-marital affairs neither make nor break the shows. If a series is well-done, adultery (no matter who's committing it) isn't going to put me off it.

  • Akimbo | February 26, 2014 9:02 PM

    "There are dozens of television dramas with predominantly white casts that do not use the adultery angle."

    When you exclude sitcoms, procedural, and genre shows, no there aren't. And even on procedurals, cases of the week often involve cheating. I'll just say this: at this year's Emmys in dramas series, 5 out of 7 nominees for lead actress were portraying characters who had affairs. 3 out of 6 (plus one who just kissed another woman) nominees for lead actor were doing the same.

    If you don't want to see it, fine, but adultery is a mainstay of dramatic television. Leads of such series often take part in it, side kicks and tertiary characters don't.

  • slb | February 26, 2014 3:16 PM

    @ARI I agree wholeheartedly.

    @AKIMBO I think people on this website are sophisticated enough to understand there are standard tropes employed by creators of television and film projects. It is true the adultery trope has been quite popular as of late and is a trope that has been used many times before. The issue here is, there are not many television dramas with African American women in lead roles. And it appears that the few that do feature these women, play the adultery angle. There are dozens of television dramas with predominantly white casts that do not use the adultery angle. So when there are a few that do, it doesn't appear as bad. It's all about proportionality. And I think it is troubling when the few shows with African American leads engage in this "bad" behavior.

    Considering your examples of Grey's and PP using adultery as storylines, perhaps Shonda doesn't have a fixation with adultery involving African American leads in her shows. Maybe she just has a fixation with adultery period.

    Either way, it's illustrative of her weaknesses in storytelling. Also, I fully recognize she's not the writer of this project, but as a big name EP she certainly has significant influence in the premise and direction of the show.

  • Ari | February 26, 2014 1:24 PM

    When your most famous TV show is about a Black woman having an affair with a married man why you have to go and repeat that troup on your next show now with a married Black woman having an affair? There is only a handful of shows with a Black female lead why have them all be unfaithful little wenchs? There are other character flaws women can have besides being unfaithful. You all know good and well if these Black female characters were being created by a White man sisters would be up in arms about promoting negative sterotypes of Black women. Just like if a White man made those Tyler Perry movies folks would be boycotting them. So negative sterotypes about Black women and men is fine as long as it's being pushed by one of our own.

  • zakkmu | February 26, 2014 1:33 AMReply

    Yeap it looks like a pattern is being set. Reminds you of the reality shows sisters are playing in. All of them have the same pattern. I can't see why people watch them. Once you figure out the pattern it no longer holds interest. And figuring out the pattern doesn't take but a minute.(lol)

  • guest | February 25, 2014 10:10 PMReply

    Hmm. I'm very curious about which actors will play her husband and her lover. I believe Shonda may be developing a very disturbing pattern when it comes to the love lives of black women. We'll see.

  • Byron Wigfall | February 25, 2014 9:54 PMReply

    Child's play! That's what I'm talking about!👌

  • guest | February 25, 2014 9:48 PMReply

    Affairs? Mistresses? Are these the only roles black women can get on television?

  • stp | February 26, 2014 10:16 PM

    You sound like the people that disliked 'the help'......

  • Katie | February 25, 2014 9:16 PMReply

    Honestly, legal shows have never been my thing, but even if it were I still wouldn't want to watch, because like Micah, I don't watch black women as adulteress and mistresses. I don't care what people say about Being Mary Jane and Scandal. I refuse to watch black women play these roles. I'll stick with black web series. Thank God for the Internet, now we have options.

  • Micah | February 25, 2014 8:46 PMReply

    I was insanely excited about this until it says she's having an affair. We have all of these talented and beautiful actresses playing smart and accomplished characters. Why is it that Olivia, Mary Jane and now Annalise have to have this particular character to flaw? Are these creators trying to say something? If one of them was like this, it would be different. If we had many black actress leads on television and these three were like this it would be different. When the 3 out of the 4 are like this, it's a problem. When we are in control of our own images we should strive to represent better. These shows should just reinforce damaging ideals. I'm not saying they don't have their good points but this is bothersome.

  • No | February 25, 2014 10:01 PM

    And you have owner why Shonda Rhimes is promoting this line for Scandal and the proposed Getting Away With Murder. Perhaps it is to show that black women can be "bad girls" by having affairs?

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