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How To Get Away With Murder And The Geeking Of TV Drama

Bob Chipman | 3 Nov 2014 14:00
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Bob looks at ABC's hit series and explores how it channels geek culture. NOTE: Features spoilers for the pilot episode of How To Get Away With Murder

It's perhaps inevitable that Shonda Rhimes, the TV writer/producer who created the small-screen megahits Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, would get proper-up as a "counter-example" to the norms of popular-culture - whatever you decide those norms to be. A black single mom who produces ultra-successful TV series largely (though by no means exclusively) aimed at a female audience within what is still (rather pointlessly) called the "soap opera" genre, her story sounds like the "opposite day" version of what lazy (but not necessarily "incorrect") pop-culture commentators would call The Establishment of 21st Century entertainment.

In other words, regardless of whether or not her work is good (spoiler: it's good, even if I've never been particularly bowled-over by Grey's) it was going to be held up as The Alternative to "the norm," and so because of where we are now the "ShondaLand" series get to be The Alternative to the "geeking" of popular culture. It's the kind of think-piece journalism that writers itself: "In a TV/film landscape increasingly dominated by boy's-club fantasies of tough-guys, zombies and superheroes, Shonda Rhimes is making her name with TV for grownups - and grownup women."

It's the sort of seeming self-critical narrative that Hollywood adores: Ostensibly progressive and self-flagellating ("Go Shonda! If only we could all be as you!") while simultaneously reinforcing the ancient gender/age paradigms the industry still insists on relying upon: Moneymaking multimedia action = Boys (and, y'know, "cool girls"); melodrama about relationships = Girls (and "your mom" if it's especially lame.) It'd be largely inoffensive as narratives go - who really cares about TV-culture thinkpieces, for the most part - save for how much it sells Rhimes and other creators doing similar work short and how much it fundamentally misunderstands what's really happening in the world of narrative storytelling.

From where I stand, the much-discussed (or much-maligned, depending on your pop-watching outlet of choice) omnipresence of not only comic-book and video-game superheroes in the action genre is merely the most visible aspect of how the whole of popular culture has "geeked out" over the last decade. Viewership behaviors that were once exclusive to the Comic-Con set like binge-watching, continuity-mapping, "shipping" and all manner of enjoyment-extension has become the norm for mainstream entertainment (one of the most popular shows in primetime is about a small town populated by flesh and blood versions of Walt Disney characters who've lost their memories - no, for real;) and far from being some sort of alternative to this miasma "ShondaLand" is home to some of the geekiest storytelling on TV, regardless of a distinct lack of grumpy police detectives waiting around awkwardly for a moneyed goth-moppet to grow up into Batman. And no, not just because Scandal, Rhimes' most wickedly-amusing creation, quickly started to play out like 24 if you replaced bullets with verbal-barbs (and also some bullets, still.)

Case in point, the newest ShondaLand series (and the first to be created by one of Rhimes' collaborators, Peter Nowalk, with Rhimes in the executive-producer chair) How to Get Away With Murder, which filters a big writhing clump of the Geek Age of Television's favorite fixin's (lurid plotlines, a plethora of oddly-connecting characters, time-askew temporal mucking, convoluted "keep-track-of-me-if-you-dare" storytelling, a hard-hearted snarker as the lead) through what you might call a ShondaLand "demographic-prism" - which, yes, in part means a Greg House/Walter White-style mean/complicated anti-protagonist who happens to be a stern black woman instead of... well, you know.

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