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'How to Get Away with Murder' review: Fast, fun and sharp

Viola Davis, center, in

Viola Davis, center, in "How To Get Away With Murder," premiering Sept. 25. It's one of three series by Shonda Rhimes that will air on Thursdays. Photo Credit: AP / Nicole Rivelli

THE SHOW "How to Get Away With Murder"

WHEN | WHERE Thursday night at 10 on ABC/7

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) is a tough-as-nails law professor who teaches her students (quite literally) how to get away with murder in the courtroom.

(No. 1? Discredit the witness...) As part of her course, she turns a handful of prospective legal beagles into pitbulls -- chips off her block who pursue leads in a case she's actually working on (she's also a practicing lawyer). They include sweet, innocent Wes Gibbons (Alfred Enoch), who's both bemused and fascinated by the prof. Her other hand-picked student stars -- who eagerly follow in the master's footsteps -- include Michaela Pratt (Aja Naomi King), Asher Millstone (Matt McGorry), Laurel Castillo (Karla Souza) and Connor Walsh (Jack Falahee). Keating may be supremely self-confident, but she also has dark secrets, and soon, so will her students. "Murder" joins two other shows by Shonda Rhimes on ABC tonight -- "Grey's Anatomy" (8) and "Scandal" (9), which also air their season premieres.

MY SAY Shondaland is a production company, but lately has started to seem a little more like a country -- say, the France of prime time. That three Shondaland series will fill ABC's entire lineup tonight is extremely rare, if not quite unprecedented, for a production company. It indicates that struggling ABC has given up or has conceded the obvious: Shonda Rhimes and her empire know how to get viewers better than the network does.

In fact, she does, and now it's up to "Murder" to maintain the rep. The early read is it will.

What's Shondaland's deep secret here and elsewhere? It's not that deep, really. The ingredients are sex, scandal, love, betrayal, power, mystery, romance, intrigue, tragedy, triumph and sometimes murder. Mix, shake, pour ... repeat.

She also creates memorable characters -- most often strong women, who are fallible, particularly around men who tend to be even more fallible -- then hands them over to good actors who fill them with body and soul. Davis' Keating doesn't just walk into a room but strides -- a powerful clenched fist ready to strike. Her eyes are cold, hard, expressionless discs, her mouth sensuous and cruel. When she speaks, she barks. When she commands, people jump. Then, in one private, unguarded moment, those edges soften, and her eyes glisten. There's a beating heart in there somewhere, a relatable human being after all.

You've seen the same transformation with Meredith Grey and Olivia Pope a thousand times, but Davis already has mastered it.

Created by longtime Rhimes colleague Peter Nowalk, the "Murder" pilot is packed with exposition, backstory, forestory and plot tangents that may be false leads or real leads.

There are stray MacGuffins and red herrings strewn about, too. Head games are being played on viewers, but it's left to them to decode what those games are.

That's the fun of "Murder" and, in the early going, the frustration, too. "Murder" approaches information overload, then pulls back to a character reveal or jumps into a flash-forward. The pilot is ingenious but at moments maybe a little too smart for its own good.

That's OK -- Shondaland probably has another success.

BOTTOM LINE Fast, fun and sharp (but pay attention). A likely winner.

GRADE B+

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