Viola Davis Viola Davis

If Grey's Anatomy is an oversexed St. Elsewhere, and Scandal a frenzied object lesson on how to put the woo-woo in The West Wing, then the latest Shondaland extravaganza, ABC's juicy legal melodrama How To Get Away With Murder (10/9c), is The Paper Chase on steroids. This instantly addictive thriller appears to have been written on pure pulp, the better to absorb the outrageous storytelling by one of executive producer Shonda Rhimes' own graduates, Pete Nowalk (Grey's, Scandal).

The heightened tone, pungent dialogue, extreme characters, twisty plotting and dizzying pace reflect the Shonda philosophy of entertain-at-all-costs, providing a sizzling showcase for Viola Davis as Annalise Keating, a ferocious lioness of a law professor with a bold hands-on approach to teaching. She uses her cutthroat students as all-too-willing guinea pigs, each vying for a chance to work alongside (in hopes of becoming) her. On their first day in class, wearing a zippered leather top, this goddess of anything-goes justice assigns the class to concoct legal strategies for the case she's about to take to court. They'll do whatever it takes to earn a win, a grade and respect — perhaps even commit murder?

Because in the framing device that opens the series, flashing forward three months into their discipleship, we see her five most prized pupils desperately trying to cover up a killing, which is constantly being foreshadowed by current events. (Shades of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, if it had been a graphic novel.) How did they get in this fine mess? Well, that's the series — at least the 13-episode first season, which if it keeps up at this speed should be the perfect nightcap to a full night of Shonda Rhimes-produced guilty pleasures (emphasis on pleasure, because who has time for guilt).

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With the passionately committed Davis in full command, browbeating students and clients for their shortcomings and slyly reveling in her unscrupulous tactics as she practices what she preaches, Keating is a marvelous yet rather mysterious character. No wonder her acolytes hang on her every reaction and fear her unpredictable mood swings. They sit in her courtroom as if they're watching a show, while treating her classroom as a winner-take-all game. Among the student bodies making a strong first impression: Jack Falahee as smugly seductive preppy Connor, Aja Naomi King as coolly ambitious Michaela and Alfred Enoch as earnest Wes, initially the show's eyes-and-ears protagonist, who in a nice touch is shown bunking in a room once occupied by a former law student (possibly one of Keating's?), with claw marks on the walls an indicator of the stress that awaits them all.

My grade for Murder: an "F," for Fan-Freaking-tastic Fun.

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