Premise: One of the top lawyers in the country is also a professor who recruits her law students to help her win cases.
About: The new show coming this fall from TV mogul Shonda Rhimes. After going to film school, Rhimes was able to put together a short film in 1998 that starred Jada Pinkett-Smith. She would later sell a spec to New Line, write the Britney Spears film, Crossroads, write the sequel to The Princess Diaries, then a year later, change her life with Grey’s Anatomy. Rhimes is teaming up with longtime collaborator Pete Nowalk, who’s worked with her on Grey’s and Scandal. He wrote the pilot and created the show.
Writer: Pete Nowalk
Details: 63 pages – 12/3/13
When you want to write a hip new unorthodox show about cancer or the apocalypse, go to HBO or AMC. When you want to write a show that everybody in America watches, you go to Shonda Rhimes. This girl has the pulse of America on her fingertips. Whatever the magic TV touch is, she’s got it. And her latest, How to Get Away With Murder, is the most buzzed about network show coming this year.
To be honest, I have no interest in network shows. There’s a reason they’ve been shut out of the Emmys. While everyone else is taking chances, they’re playing it as safe as the medium will allow it. Ongoing storylines are sacrificed in favor of a simplistic procedural style that allows easy entry to latecomers. This results in a nice quick fix after a long day of work, but few rewards for longtime viewers, the ones who keep the show on the map.
But I’ll tell you this. These shows pay their writers well. And since not everyone can spearhead the next Breaking Bad, you writers looking to make a career at this shouldn’t mark these network shows off your list. Especially if you get a shot at working with one of the best network prime-timers in the business, Shonda Rhimes.
How To Get Away With Murder starts the way you’d hope a show with that title would start. Preppy Michaela, sexy Patrick, Boyish Wes, and bookish Laurel, all grad students at Middleton University, each have blood on their hands. No, LITERALLY. They actually have blood on their hands. The four have just murdered someone. But the snippets of dialogue they exchange aren’t telling us the whole story. All we can see is that they’re scared and they don’t agree on what to do next.
Flashback to 4 months ago, when the four enter one of the most prestigious legal classes in the country, Criminal 101, or how their sociopath but highly successful law professor, Annalise DeWitt puts it: “How to Get Away With Murder.”
Annalise, like a lot of Rhimes’s characters, has many dimensions. She’s strong. She’s smart. She’s demanding. She’s calm. She’s cunning. She’s evil. And she has secrets. Oh, does she have secrets. Annalise tells the class that they’re going to be helping her in her latest case, where a woman, Gina, is accused of trying to murder her boss by exchanging his medication with one she knew he was allergic to.
Annalise makes a little game of it. Whoever does the most to help win the case gets her coveted “immunity idol trophy,” (which, of course, later becomes the murder weapon for our students). The trophy allows you to get out of exams and assignments. And it’s implied that whoever gets it first will be the one Annalise mentors this semester.
Each student has their own ideas on how to defend Gina, but Wes is the one we center on most. Wes catches Annalise in bed with someone, gasp, other than her husband, so she places him on Team Annalise to… what? Keep him quiet? Or because he’s actually good? As is usually the case with Annalise, we don’t know.
Over the course of the trial, Wes will learn that Annalise refuses to lose. It doesn’t matter if she has to take down the people she’s closest to. She will ruin lives and threaten others. All in the name of being the best lawyer in the country. The question is, does Wes want to be a part of that, a team that sacrifices their morals to be the best. Or does he want to live that quiet easy legal life without any headaches, the exact life Annalise despises so much? We’ll have to watch to find out.
Man, let me say this. This Nowalk guy knows how to freaking pack a story. There was a TON of stuff going on in How to Get Away With Murder. But not in that bad clumsy way you see in so many amateur scripts. Every piece of information is cleverly set up to be paid off later. Oh, that man Wes accidentally caught Annalise banging? That wasn’t just for shock value. That comes back in the trial.
That’s the thing with “Murder.” Everything is a setup. Which means almost every scene in the second half has a payoff. I really don’t know where to start here because there’s so much good. I mean yeah, it’s cheesy entertainment. There’s nothing that heavy here. Even death is protected by that ABC “everything’s going to be okay” sheen. But it’s all so damn entertaining.
Every character here is memorable. And that doesn’t mean they’re all complex. But Nowalk is really good at setting up who the characters are. He does this cleverly right away actually, by placing Patrick, Michaela, Wes, and Laurel in a messy situation.
If you’ve read Scriptshadow, you know this is one of the best ways to show the reader who your characters are. Put them all in a bad situation, then watch how they react. Patrick is freaking out, Wes is calm, Micaheala can’t make a decision, Laurel is defiant. As with any bad situation, each character will react differently. And it’s that difference that allows us to see who they are.
From there, Nowalk creates a ton of mystery boxes so that we’ve got multiple things to wonder about. It’s like hedging your bets as a writer. If they don’t like this mystery box, they’ll like that one. If not that one, we’ll create another. There are four main ones – who the hell did these students murder and why? There’s a missing girl in the flashback storyline (which I didn’t even have time to get to). We have the case itself (Did Gina do it?). And we have a mysterious girl who lives across from Wes who gets into arguments every night with the former boyfriend of the girl who’s missing.
Then you have Annalise herself. What a great character. Rhimes and Nowalk are really good at this stuff. Annalise is so complex. She gets mad when you think she should be calm (after you just did well in class), or calm when you think she should be mad (after Wes catches her having sex with another man).
But the best part about this character is that Nowalk and Rhimes aren’t taking the easy way out with her. They’re making her just as bad as she is good. In fact, I’d argue that they haven’t shown us any good yet. She’s cheating on her husband. She (spoiler) throws a friend under the bus to save her client, even though she knows her client is guilty. And she’ll break down on a dime to get you to side with her, only to coldly go back to neutral the second you turn away, showing us it was all an act.
I think the thing that most impressed me though was a scene in the middle of the script. It’s a scene that very easily could’ve been spat onto the page, but Nowalk CRAFTS the scene, turns it into something much better than it could’ve been.
It’s a scene where Annalise tells the class that tomorrow, they’ll each have one minute to pitch their angle on how they’d defend Gina. The handful of students who come up with the best defense strategy, she’ll take to court. I want you to think about how you would write this scene. Stop right now and imagine it in your head.
Here’s how the scene was written. First, Nowalk did something smart. The best scenes are usually set up in some way. So we go back a few scenes to set this scene up. Wes had screwed up in class on the first day. Because of this, Annalise told Wes that he’d be pitching last, after all 80 students. And he wouldn’t be allowed to repeat any of the previous suggestions.
This way, when the scene begins, it has form. Why? Because we know Wes is pitching last. This creates both SUSPENSE and TENSION. Suspense because we’re eagerly anticipating Wes’s turn and what he’s going to say. And tension because as each person pitches, Wes has to cross one more idea off his list. At the very end, someone takes his final idea. And Wes has to come up with something on the fly.
I’ve seen the amateur version of this scene before. Bad writers want to shoot straight to the fun stuff, the jump-cutting between each student as they give their defense ideas. The scene has no form because it doesn’t have anything anchoring it (like Wes). Dare I say that it’s predisposed.
How to Get Away With Murder is harmless entertainment. But it’s as good as you’re going to find harmless entertainment. I’ll be trying to get away with murder this September. You should too.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: Going back sometimes allows you to go forward. If you’re struggling to write a scene, see if you can go back a scene or two and SET SOMETHING UP which will allow you to write the scene. That’s what Nowalk did here. By going back and setting up that Wes screwed up, it allowed him to create this class scene where Wes is told he’s going last and can’t repeat anyone, which made the scene way more exciting than had it been written straight-up.
What I learned 2: Create dual-jobs for your hero to discover untapped concepts. One thing I realized here is that typically on television shows, a lawyer is a lawyer. That’s all they do. Ditto almost any job. A cop is a cop. A doctor is a doctor. But we live in a world where lots of people have two or more jobs. Under this setup, your characters will have multiple skills and lives. These skills can be combined in unique ways to create untapped show ideas. That’s what happened here. Annalise is a professor and a lawyer. That’s what allowed them to come with this unique premise. Had the writers been thinking too linearly, the way everyone thinks, they would never have stumbled across this unique premise.