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“How to Get Away with Murder” is Changing TV Forever

October 19, 2014

CHARLIE WEBER, LIZA WEIL, BILLY BROWN, MATT MCGORRY, AJA NAOMI KING, VIOLA DAVIS, KATIE FINDLAY, ALFRED ENOCH, KARLA SOUZA, JACK FALAHEE

A few weeks ago, How to Get Away with Murder premiered on ABC as part of Shondaland and I wrote about how great it was.  This past week, it surpassed great and moved on to game-changing. Not only does this show have excellent writing, terrific acting, complex characters, and an intricate and exciting plot, it rose to a new level this week by showing us things that have never been shown on network TV before.

In the first episode, the gay community was delightfully surprised when Connor Walsh (Jack Falahee) turned conquest Oliver (Conrad Ricamora) onto his stomach and we saw the first rimjob on network television. That was the moment where I knew this show would push boundaries in a huge way. And that wasn’t a one-and-done for Mr. Walsh. This week’s episode had a full on sex scene with Paxton (Niko Pepaj), a client’s assistant in a copy room. Now you may be asking what the big deal is, and I’m going to tell you.

In the history of gays on TV, relationships have been largely platonic, even romantic relationships. With the exception of premium cable shows like Queer as Folk, from Will & Grace to Modern Family and back again, you rarely see gay men engaging sexually with one another, and even if you do, it is fairly tame. While heterosexual couples will be shown making out naked in bed, gay couples are shown making out fully clothed. If they are in bed, it is almost always a nonsexual scene. Of course, sometimes the story doesn’t call for sex to be shown on screen if the couple is having a discussion about finances or what to serve at their dinner party. And straight couples have their fair share of bedroom scenes that have nothing to do with sex.

ABC  shows in general have started to change this with the mere inclusion of more gay/queer characters on their big shows (Brothers & Sisters, Revenge, etc), but Shondaland shows have really pushed things further. First, on Grey’s Anatomy, we got to see Callie (Sara Ramirez) and Arizona (Jessica Capshaw) being sexual with one another, and on Scandal, Cyrus (Jeff Perry) and James (Dan Bucatinsky) got pretty frisky with each other after a heated argument. In fact, on the current season of Scandal, Cyrus is starting a relationship with a gay escort (Matthew Del Negro), and their relationship is purely sexual, at least for now. But never until How to Get Away with Murder’s recent episode have I seen two gay men go for each other in a full on sex scene with wild abandon the way that Connor and Paxton did.

That scene was not only sexy, exciting and fun to watch, but it also was an important plot point, as both characters had to deal with the repercussions of their actions in serious ways. Sex for sex’s sake doesn’t have a place in storytelling, nor should it. But it is nice to finally see two gay men shown interacting the way a straight couple would on network TV, without the studio, network, or audience crying out for changes.

While that was certainly a personal victory as a gay TV viewer, the really incredible moment was at the end of the episode, and naturally it came from the incredibly talented Viola Davis. After receiving some unpleasant news (news the audience was, at the moment, unaware of), Davis’ Annalise Keating sits down at her mirror, takes off her jewelry, then removes her wig and eyelashes and scrubs the makeup from her face, staring into the mirror, as raw as she can possibly be. Her husband comes in, and she turns to him asking, point blank: “Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?”

Not only is this a great line to close out the episode, what Davis did in that moment was something I’ve also never seen done on network TV. Not only did an actress remove every bit of her makeup on camera, but it was a black woman of a certain age that did it.  Hollywood glamorizes young black women who are light skinned, with makeup to soften their features and weaves that resemble white people’s hair. So for a middle aged, dark skinned black woman to remove everything that makes her “attractive” and just “be” was incredible to watch. In fact it was more fascinating to me to watch that sequence than to hear her ask the question that was a huge bomb in the plot of the show. It was raw, it was emotional, it was mesmerizing, and it was perfect.

How to Get Away with Murder is pushing the boundaries of how we view sexuality, sexual orientation, and race on TV, set up nicely by it’s Shondaland predecessors Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. And with more shows featuring people of color on TV than ever before (Black-ish, Cristela, Jane the Virgin, and the upcoming Empire and Fresh Off the Boat), I can only hope that this progression doesn’t stop. Fortunately, it doesn’t look like Shonda Rhimes is going anywhere, so I expect we’ll see more diversity, accurate representations, and honest portrayals for years to come.

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