The TV Room: Welcome to Shondaland, by David Bax
ABC’s hit How to Get Away with Murder, returning to the air tomorrow, spent last fall teasing us with a flashforward sort of framing device. The first episode begins with a group of people in the woods at night trying to figure out how to dispose of a dead body. Then, a title card reads “Two Months Earlier” and we get the first story in the series, including our real introductions to the characters we just glimpsed, all law students in the same class. Each subsequent episode kicks off with a few more glimpses of that night and and a bit more information before flashing back to the story of the week. And with each occurrence, the amount of time on the title card contracts.
Television viewers of recent stock, accustomed to things like Breaking Bad‘s second season, may have expected that it would take until season’s end for the two timelines to converge. How to Get Away with Murder got there before Thanksgiving.
This kind of storytelling isn’t exactly new to television but to a generation raised on the most recent “golden age,” roughly defined as Sopranos-to-present, it’s whiplash-inducing. The Sopranos often gets credited with bringing more literary and dramatic respectability to television by crafting each season like a novel with the episodes as the chapters. In this format, no single episode stands apart from the others. You have to watch them all and you have to watch them in order. Actually, though, this reputation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The Sopranos had much more in common with traditional modes of television storytelling than many of the series it inspired. The novelistic approach more accurately describes The Wire, a show that is often lauded as one of the greats despite displaying contempt for its own medium.
In any case, the mold has been formed. Longer stories, built with layers over time, were the rule of the day for a show hoping to gain prestige. This was the revolution. By the beginning of this current decade, though, the wear and tear was already beginning to show on this new golden age. The Killing was so slow that it couldn’t even finish one story by the end of the first season. A year after that, a once great and fun show like Justified buckled under the spotlight of prestige and turned in a turgid and over-serialized third season.
It was right around this time that a new trend began to appear (or an old trend began to reappear; after all, all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again). When Showtime’s Homeland finished up its out-of-nowhere surprise of a brilliant first season, the applause barely had time to die down before the question showed up. People were rightly concerned as to whether or not the show could sustain itself for a second season. Could we really be in for another dozen episodes of Carrie knowing but not really knowing that Brody is a terrorist?
As it turned out, no. Homeland‘s plan was to fly in the face of our expectations for “serious” television. In a mirror image of Justified‘s third season metabolic downshift, Homeland began burning through plot at a fevered pace. Carrie found out the truth about Brody way sooner than we thought she would. Then, just when we thought we’d settled into the show’s new paradigm, it wallopped us again with Brody’s apprehension. It was exhilarating. Until, that is, it wasn’t.
In the season’s second half, the bag of tricks was empty and the writers flailed. But, while that particular experiment flamed out, its embers caught elsewhere. The Vampire Diaries (from what I’m told) manages a brisk pace. And ABC’s Nashville, after trying desperately to recapture the acclaim that met its pilot, found its true calling in a faked miscarriage and a jar of pig’s blood. At about the same time, folks were hooking themselves up to Netflix and mainlining Scandal, a show that critics were increasingly eager to hail.
This all brings us back to How to Get Away with Murder. By establishing an implausibly frantic pace as the baseline of its own reality while keeping its characters and themes steady, the newest export from Shondaland has struck the perfect balance and heralded the turning of a new page. The golden age is here to stay and it’s a blast.