Saturday, February 6, 2016

Network Shows Well Worth Watching: How To Get Away With Murder, Quantico and The Grinder

Viola Davis in ABC's How to Get Away with Murder.

This review contains spoilers.
Perusing the end of the year Best of ranked lists for television, I noticed the continuing trend of almost everybody’s lists – from Time to Entertainment Weekly – consisting almost entirely of cable TV series, with only the occasional network show, such as Empire or The Last Man on Earth, thrown into the mix. I get that; the TV critics find the lack of censorship and unfettered content that is de rigueur on cable television to be enormously appealing. But that doesn’t mean that network fare is worthless, even if characters say "bullcrap" instead of "bullshit" and nudity can only be implied. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a world where only network TV, Canadian or American, existed, but my viewing habits still skew towards broadcast programming, though they don’t make up all my viewing. (I eagerly await the fourth season of The Americans which begins on FX on March 16.) Three of the best bets currently on the networks – How to Get Away with Murder, Quantico and The Grinder – prove, too, that variations on familiar themes can be wrung even there, where novelty is not expected to exist. 

How to Get Away with Murder (ABC) and Quantico (ABC) have similar structures. They’re both mystery thrillers, which open with a tantalizing scenario. In the former, star lawyer Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) lies, seemingly near death, four of her students somehow involved in what’s happened to her; in the latter, a terrorist bombing has levelled New York City’s Grand Central Terminal and FBI agent Alex Parrish (Indian actress Priyanka Chopra, the first actor from that country to front an American series), found on the scene, is suspected of the crime. Then we flashback in How to Get Away with Murder to the events leading up to Annalise’s shooting and in Quantico, to a group of disparate FBI agents, the best of the best, including Alex, learning their craft even as it’s suggested that (at least) one of them has been a terrorist from the get go. But which one? And who shot Annalise and why? 

How to Get away with Murder, now in its second season, is one twisty series. In season one, four of Annalise’s five interns, Wes Gibbins (Alfred Enoch), Laurel Castillo (Karla Souza), Michaela Pratt (Aja Naomi King) and Connor Walsh (Jack Falahee) accidentally killed Annalise’s cheating husband Sam (Tom Verica), even while Wes began a relationship with Rebecca Sutter (Katie Findlay), a suspect in the murder of Lila Stangard, the coed who was having an affair with Sam. Annalise found about Sam’s death and helped her students cover it up. Meanwhile, Annalise’s lover, cop Nate Leahy (Billy Brown), tried to pin Lila’s murder on Sam, whom he thought had fled the scene of the crime, but became the prime suspect himself. And the fifth intern, obnoxious Asher Millstone (Matt McGorry), who had been kept out of the loop surrounding Sam’s death, was also hovering, trying to find out what was going on. Have you got all that? Created by Peter Nowalk and executive produced by Shonda Rhimes (Gray’s Anatomy, Scandal), How to Get Away with Murder took all the tropes of lawyer shows, including dramatic trials, crossed it with a story of soap opera proportions and garnished it all with a fair amount of sex, straight and gay, perhaps the most explicit depictions of such in any network show to date. The result: a fast moving, great looking and utterly compelling show, well acted by all concerned and if not a masterpiece of drama, still a truly riveting one. 

Alfred Enoch and Katie Findlay. (Photo: Michael Ansell/ABC)
Anchoring it all was and is Davis’ riveting and superb and deserved Emmy award-winning (she was the first African-American woman to win Best Lead Actress in a Drama series) portrayal of Annalise, a larger than life figure, most reminiscent of John Houseman’s imposing law professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr from The Paper Chase series, but, unlike him, filled with self loathing and prone to both grandstanding in the courtroom and breaking the law if need be in order to win her cases. By the time more dramatic revelations about her life are revealed in season two, she is also unveiled as one very screwed up but utterly fascinating woman, one of the most interesting characters ever created for television and as played by Davis, one of the rawer ones, too. (It may be infectious as both Julianna Margulie’s Alicia Florrick and Alan Cumming’s Eli Gold were allowed similarly self lacerating moments in The Good Wife this season, some of the best acting they have ever done.) The series is also unique in that it doesn't just deal effectively with racial issues; its cast is blacker than most shows, including the characters of Annalise, Nate, Wes and Michaela. (The current controversy surrounding the Academy awards and their nominees’ perceived lack of diversify, might not be as pertinent an issue for television, where shows like How to Get Away with Murder, Black-ish and Empire draw in wide audiences with largely or all black casts.)

In season two, How to Get Away with Murder has gone even further in its complicated plotting, some of which has carried forward from its debut season – its unfettered sexuality (everyone has an active sex life, with Asher now involved with Annalise’s Associate Attorney Bonnie Winterbottom (Liza Weil) and Laurel with Frank Delfino (Charlie Weber), Annalise’s fixer, who helps with all the dirty work and cover-ups necessary to keep Annalise’s law firm running) and its ripped from the headline issues. Unlike last season, when there was a case of the week (and in a farfetched setup Annalise’s students were always allowed in the courtroom), this season has smartly focused almost entirely on just one high profile and media driven one, that of two adopted siblings accused of killing their parents. (Even there, sex pops up with Michaela hitting it off with the male suspect.) It’s thus more believable and the show has also benefited from deepening its characters, including Asher who was too one dimensional last year, as well as bringing forth new aspects of Annalise’s (complex) protagonist. The finale of the first part of the season set the stage for part two (How to Get Away with Murder returns on Feb. 11) with even more reveals (including who shot Annalise, though that one was a tad silly), and provocative plot twists, to ensure we keep watching.

Privanka Chopra in ABC's Quantico.

Believe it or not, Quantico (ABC), created by Joshua Safran, gives How to Get Away with Murder a run for its money when it comes to knotty plotting. It’s not just that the new FBI recruits, including Simon Asher (Tate Ellington), a Jew who has mysteriously spent time in Gaza, secretive Muslim agent Nimah Amin (Yasmine Al Massri), Southerner Shelby Wyatt (Johanna Braddy), whose parents perished on one of the downed planes on 9/11, Ryan Booth (Jake McLaughlin), who has the hots for Alex and Alex herself, have secrets they are hiding, it’s that their teachers and superiors do, too. The terror plot, introduced at the outset, involves them all in one way or another, as perpetrators, victims or bystanders who become part of some still unnamed bigger picture. And the training exercises they undergo in each episode’s flashbacks will hold them in good stead as they chase the killers or try to outrun those chasing them. Like How to Get Away with Murder, Quantico is populated with good looking (and good) young actors, is beautifully shot and moves quickly. It, also like Murder, has its wobbly moments. Some of the recruits’ cover stories make no sense and the show, somewhat obviously, makes sure each would be agent is a suspect at one time or another before settling (I think) on one of them for the bombing. It did do a good job of raising about our suspicions about each in turn.

Admittedly, both series are probably more sizzle than steak, though both tap into the zeitgeist, too, in the same vein as Revenge, the enjoyable and recently cancelled ABC series about the 1% and the evil things they were able to do. Except for its revolutionary preponderance of black characters, How to Get Away with Murder isn’t necessarily saying anything startling about the administration of justice in America, except that both prosecutors and defenders and the police will go to any lengths to make sure their cases turn out the way they want. The Practice did that years ago, though Murder goes much further in depicting the byzantine, even depraved machinations involved. Even smarmy Richard Bay on The Practice didn’t misbehave the way Annalise and her crew sometimes do here. And I wouldn’t exactly take Quantico as a real life primer on what the current War on Terror really entails in 2016. (Its looking glass examination of FBI practices offered in an educational setting is a fresh one though, as is its ethnically diverse cast, likely a new look for the current FBI which needs to reach out to Muslim Americans if they are to succeed in fighting Islamic terror.) But neither show, unlike Lost and the original X-Files, seems to be making things up as they go along. And I, for one, can’t wait to see what these two highly entertaining, unpredictable and, yes, sexy shows will come up with next.  

Rob Lowe and Fred Savage in FOX's The Grinder.

The Grinder (FOX) might easily be dismissed as just a conventional TV comedy but, in its star Rob Lowe, it has offered us one of the best depictions of narcissism ever shown on television. Lowe plays actor Dean Sanderson, aka The Grinder, the lawyer he played for eight seasons on a melodramatic drama wherein his character was part Colombo, part MacGyver, all ham. (The snippets of The Grinder that open each episode are priceless; it’s frighteningly easy to believe that this over the top series could have aired for so long.) Now that the show has ended, he is at loose ends and decides to return to his hometown of Boise, Idaho, where both his brother Stewart (Fred Savage) and father Dean Sanderson Sr. (William Devane) practice law. The funny catch: Dean actually believes that playing a lawyer on TV qualifies him to be one in real life and he thus joins the family firm, though Stewart does his befuddled best to prevent Dean from making what he thinks are dramatic ‘lawyerly’ statements in court. Of course, many of the star struck judges and opposing lawyers are prone to letting Dean act as a ‘real’ lawyer anyway in the courtroom, usually (but not always) to negative effect.

I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a better handle on how Hollywood stardom can warp an actor’s ego and allow him to forget how to behave as an authentic person. Dean is actually a nice guy, and gets a kick of living with Stewart, wife Debbie (Mary Elizabeth Ellis, from FX’s It’s Always Funny in Philadelphia, a decidedly inferior and unfunny show) and their two kids, who adore him, but he won’t speak if he can declaim and somehow doesn’t get the nuances when sarcasm is directed his way or when his demeanour is mocked by others, notably by Claire (Natalie Morales), a lawyer in Stewart’s firm who won’t give him the time of day, even though Dean assumes she cannot long resist his actor’s charms. (It doesn’t help when so many women Dean meets want to have sex with not him but the character of The Grinder.) Dean really doesn’t live in the real world like we do, though his current unemployed circumstances are slowly forcing him to consider doing just that. Lowe plays Dean with an obliviousness balanced by an acute sensitivity to imagined slights, particularly when he perceives them as coming from his (considered jealous) younger brother. Lowe is letter perfect in the part, perhaps more so when stacked against Savage (known to TV fans for his role as Kevin Arnold in The Wonder Years, 1988-93) and Ellis, who still seem uncomfortable in their roles. (The actors playing their kids, Connor Kalopsis and Hana Hayes are just okay and I wish William Devane was given a bit more to do as the family patriarch; he’s seemingly in the show just to undermine Stewart and build up Dean in his delusions. It’s not enough.)

There’s also a great recurring role from Timothy Olyphant, playing himself, who takes up with Claire, which drives Dean around the bend and who has also replaced Dean on the sequel to The Grinder (The Grinder: New Orleans). As an almost as oblivious fellow actor but smarmier and less clueless than he acts, Olyphant matches Lowe beat for beat. I wouldn’t have imagined the grim star of Deadwood and Justified in such a comedic part but he pulls it off with ease.

The Grinder’s creators Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel, who wrote the first two episodes of the series, could have commissioned better scripts, which considering the show's irresistible premise are often too weak, but Lowe’s performance makes those deficiencies forgivable. As long as Dean/The Grinder is on the scene, all is good. 

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he is currently teaching a course on genre cinema.

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