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Viola Davis back on TV in ABC's 'How to Get Away with Murder'

Viola Davis arrives on the red carpet for

Viola Davis arrives on the red carpet for the 86th annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles on March 2, 2014. (Credit: AP / Jordan Strauss)

Beverly Hills: Two-time Oscar nominee Viola Davis will mark her return to TV this fall with a starring role in ABC's "How to Get Away with Murder." Or let's make that THE starring role, which is about to catapult her into rarefied company, as only the third African-American female lead on a major broadcast drama - the others, of course, are Kerry Washington, who just picked up another Emmy nod last week for "Scandal," and Halle Berry in CBS's new summer hit, "Extant."

Some perspective on this. Before "Scandal," the last time there was a black female lead on a primetime show was back in the mid-'70s, when Teresa Graves starred in the the long-forgotten "Get Christie Love!" Soon there will be three, and TV, and culture, will change ever so perceptibly. Or, in fact, maybe it already has...

Davis Tuesday met the assembled TV press here to explain the role, and why she chose it. But the woman who put here there,  Shonda Rhimes -- overseer of "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal" -- first got the black-female-lead question, and dismissed it out of hand. Rhimes doesn't much like critics and doesn't much like their questions -- too many years of "Grey" bashing maybe? -- or maybe she just doesn't even think it merits attention: Let the show and material speak for themselves!

 But she was in no mood Tuesday to explore the Sociological Significance of it All: "There are no lessons" to be drawn,she said flatly. "I feel like the shows should speak for themselves." And so they should, but still...television hasn't always been known for breaking glass ceiling, and this particular one just got shattered.

That's just one reason why so much seems to be riding on this ABC mystery/thriller about a law professor and the students who may -- or may not -- abet her in the commission of a murder. The show will be written by a veteran writer on "Grey's," Peter Nowalk. And the other is Rhimes,  who will soon have three dramas on ABC. She has been called the new Aaron Spelling of the network -- or the black female one, in any case. (Rhimes Tuesday downplayed that too. "I'm feeling like I'm getting to go to work every day," but conceded that "It's exciting and a great vote of confidence fro ABC.")

Meanwhile, Davis, who plays lead Prof. Annalise Keating, was a bit more expansive on her reasons for being here: "The attraction was the material, yes. I think the day of choosing TV over film and TV somehow diminishing your career as an actor or actress, I think, has changed. I think people migrate towards material, especially after they reach a certain age, certain hue, certain sex.

"And I have to say, and I will be bold enough to say, that I have gotten so many wonderful film roles, but I’ve gotten even more film roles where I haven’t been the show. It’s like I’ve been invited to a really fabulous party, only to hold up the wall. I wanted to be the show. I wanted to have a character that kind of took me out of my comfort zone. And that character happened to be in a Shonda Rhimes show in “How to Get Away with Murder.” And so I did the only smart thing that any sensible actress would do, and I took it. I dove at it. And I love the fact that she’s messy and mysterious and you don’t know who she is. She’s not necessarily nurturing and “Come sit on my lap so I can talk to you, baby.”

Is the show actually any good? It is certainly promising (and intriguing) and I'll get into more detail about that later. But Davis is particularly good. This newcomer and its lead -- to use the old line -- appear to have legs.

 ABC, by the way, announced yesterday that "Murder" will launch Sept. 25.

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