HTGAWM Might Be Coming To A Close, But Its Impact On TV Culture Is Only Beginning
Thursdays have become my absolute favorite night for television and that’s for one reason and one reason only: How To Get Away With Murder. Sadly, this trail-blazing t.v show favorite is nearing its final chapter, its premiere episode of the final season airing last night. To absolutely no one’s surprise, the premiere was super intense and the episode ended with the most shocking twist of the series. Don’t worry, I won’t give anything else away--you’ll have to see for yourself.
But while this classic is coming to a close, the impact its made on television culture is just beginning. HTGAWM, along with shows like Scandal and Being Mary Jane, placed black women in the forefront when it came to primetime tv. HTGAWM took it a step further, however, in its choice for its lead character. Viola Davis, who plays Annalise Keating, the show’s protagonist and most dynamic character, recently told Entertainment Tonight why this role meant so much.
“The redefinition of the leading lady. That’s what it meant,” she said. “For me to approach a black woman realistically as a leading lady who is dark skin and wide nose and big lips, you know, who the culture has given that look a stigma of not beautiful, not sexual, not the leading lady, not powerful--all of those adjectives that associate it with being feminine, OK?-- and the fact that Shonda [Rhimes], Pete Nowalk, Shondaland created that character, I think meant so much.”
Davis’ powerful portrayal of a multi-layered woman who was allowed to be more than an archetype also allowed her to make history. Being the first black woman to win an Emmy in the leading actress in a drama category just confirmed that leading roles should not reserved for traditionally attractive white women. The image of a powerful woman can be a countless number of other types of women as well.
The show’s diversity doesn’t begin and end with the fact that the lead character is a middle-aged dark-skinned woman, though. Nearly every single character in the show is a minority or part of a marginalized group in some capacity. The show explores race, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic backgrounds and all of its overlaps in the most realistic way possible.The characters are so believable in fact, that you forget they are minorities entirely and instead focus on who they are as people. For the show’s creator, Peter Nowalk, writing nuanced characters is something he takes pride in.
“I have no idea if anything's changed in the actual world [because of the show]. But what I do know is how proud I am to write characters who, regardless of their labels, get to be messy, imperfect, and often terrible. Annalise is pathologically selfish. Connor chopped up a body. Laurel's family acts out of greed. These are all characters with minority identities, and never once have I felt pressure to make them ‘good examples’ for their community. Sometimes they're bad examples, and that's the point.”
The reason these characters can get away with being bad examples is because they are not the only example. There isn’t just one token black girl or lone gay man, burdened with the weight of representing for an entire community. Much like real life, there is a range of personalities that belong to each group and that is evident in the episodes.
The show gives us hope that people from all different kinds of backgrounds (rich families, the mafia, adoption), sexualities (gay, lesbian, pansexual) and ethnicities (black, white, asian, Spanish) can come together and become a family, even if the circumstances of their union did begin with murder and lies.
HTGAWM not only succeeded in bringing a unique level of diversity to our screens, but the show inspired its own actors to continue to make strides in tv. Jack Falahee, who plays Connor, one of the only white male characters, told NBC, “[The show has] made me much more aware of my privilege in the industry and the opportunities afforded to me. And so I hope that at the very least, leaving this show I’ll have a little bit more wherewithal in the industry of that privilege and how to best use it and choose roles accordingly.”
Matt McGorry, who plays Asher, admitted that the show gave him a passion for social justice. He said, “ Combining my art with my social justice activism is incredibly important to me, and it’s been beautiful to be on a show where we are pushing forward progressive issues.”
As for Davis, she’s taken her experience in breaking stereotypes that she’s been subject to her entire career and created a production company dedicated to humanizing and normalizing the narratives of people of color. But none of that would have been possible if not for HTGAWM.
“We’ve accomplished so much in these six seasons, just in terms of visibility and what we’ve been able to give our audience. There’s been so much diversity in the storytelling and the faces you see on the screen, and that’s a tremendous part of what our legacy is: It’s a show that says, ‘We see you; we hear you; you are being reflected in these characters because your stories are as varied and beautiful as everyone else’s.”