As I’ve done elsewhere (here, here and here), I watch a TV show and poke at its writing, its characters and its plot. I get critical and snarky and often offer a more compelling rewrite when necessary. It’s been a long time (5 years) since I dusted off my screenwriting skills, but I still keep abreast of good writing and writing analysis when it comes to things on screen.
Today I take a look at How To Get Away With Murder, because six people on Twitter told me I should, and because Netflix thinks I might like it. Did I? Kinda. Enough to want to watch more.
It’s a popular show, and I can see why. But it’s by no means without weaknesses. So let’s talk about them.
First, Let’s Cover The Characters (thanks to Wikipedia, I have character names)
Wes Gibbins – Let’s call him Slack-Jawed Eager New Guy. He’s the character we follow the closest in this ensemble. He’s marked by eagerness, newness, and I think there’s something wrong with his neck and face, but we’ll get to that later.
Professor Keating – She’s the tough as nails and therefore badass and strong law professor around whom the show orbits. She’s complex, she’s mean, she’s intentionally unlikeable and therefore mysterious, and plenty of characters tell me that she’s a good lawyer, so I don’t have to bother discovering that for myself. Thanks for all the TELL to save me from having to work on the SHOW. Let’s call her Mean Lawyer.
Connor Walsh – The gay narcissist part of the law student ensemble. Let’s call him RuthlessGuy because I don’t think anyone told him he wasn’t a rom-com badguy.
Michaela Pratt – Another tough as nails, strong, badass. Let’s call her UnlikeableWoman. We’ll talk about her in some detail later.
Asher Millstone – Still one more guy from the law student ensemble. I think he’s the token white character among all the diversity. I have very little idea what he brings to the group other than helping it appear more diverse. Oh, he’s got a terrible name that should be on someone who ties a sweater over his shoulder and worries about a regatta or stock portfolios. Let’s call him PreppyGuy.
Laurel Castillo – She’s an idealistic law student, she’s also the check mark on the obvious Hispanic demographic. And being that this is a primetime show, I bet at some point she’s going to (a) have a troubled backstory with a broken home (b) start an inappropriate relationship where she has to trade idealism for success (c) go full skank and use discovered sex appeal to get what she wants. Call her the Idealistic One.
We’ll add some other characters as we go along.
I’m watching this episode (sadly) in 480p, so my screencaps may be blurry. I apologize. You can also follow along yourself, on Netflix.
Opening 20 seconds: Staccato intro – imagery of TP, people bunched together, tension, anger, energy. Music underscores this. I like this intro, it’s got a good sense of interest, it’s visually engaging. In text I imagine a few paragraphs of various vignettes, not completely spelling everything out, but giving the highlights.
Cluttered. Underlit. The visual equivalent of about three paragraphs of worldbuilding.
0:34 After a harsh sweep from hot color to cold color, we see a man blurrily running. The implication is that this is a character we’re going to follow. The move from hot color to cold color is visual, it’s the same thing in text when we start a paragraph with a name just after spending some time doing a little worldbuilding. I prefer this in text. The underlighting and over saturation of blue makes things look unclear.
0:37 After following the running man, we come to another poorly lit moment. An argument. It’s the first use of the word “bitch”, and it gets a response of, “Don’t tell me how to feel right now.” By putting the characters at odds with one another but only through dialog, you’re expediting the audience’s connection to the tension and the momentum of a story in progress. It’s not a bad thing to do, but it can be overdone and it makes really big assumptions on behalf the audience as to how they’re to connect with characters depending on what they’re saying. The tension of the moment is revealed in the dialogue’s delivery, which is preferable to outright saying what the problem is by saying it. (We’ll talk about that in a second.)
0:42 The revelation of an object is the first major camera move, and the first major visual cue that this item is important.
Look at where the light falls on this thing. It’s screaming “PAY ATTENTION TO ME”
The fact that we are so blatantly told to pay attention to this item tells the audience it is important. It tells me, as I critique this, that the writer(s) don’t trust the audience to figure out that the first individuated item shown on screen since the opening montage would by default be important. This is the sort of things that earns a “WHY DO YOU HATE YOUR AUDIENCE” comment from me.
** For the new people, I often challenge the writer with why they hate their audience or reader when the writer fails to show that they believe or trust their reader/audience to be competent enough to follow along or get what’s important. It’s one of the things I’m known for **
0:48 The show’s first legal citation, Commonwealth v Deloach. Spoken by Idealistic One, it shows her character is brainy, and that during this crisis-argument, she speaks less emotionally. I have zero idea who these people are or what they’re doing, but it has something to do with this trophy. And the show title gives me an idea that murder is a thing that happens. I can draw from these facts that the idealistic one knows something about the law. It would be great if I got some character names so I could distinguish people.
1:00 Oh look, I get some character names – Connor, Michaela. If these characters know each other, why name-check? Is it because there’s an audience and we’ve gone 60 seconds without any proper nouns aside from a legal reference? When my friends and I talk (and generally not in poorly lit forests), I seldom name check them when we’re all together because we are all smart enough to figure out who’s talking to and about whom, and if for some reason it’s unclear, someone asks. Ding the “Why do you hate your audience” bell again.
Yes I know, we have to introduce characters, and we often do that through names spoken in dialogue. Yes, I know that during exposition text, we don’t need to speak the character’s name, especially in third-person POV. I just wish the dialogue was smoother. Not less calm, smoother. Less I-am-using-your-name-so-the-audience-associates-it-with-your-stupid-face” and more I-am-a-real-person-in-this-situation-and-this-is-my-reaction.
1:14 The dialogue continues doing a whole lot of telling and not a lot of showing. We learn this is a campus and that this is a busy time of year, even though we saw that visually about seventy seconds ago. The fact that this has to be told to me does two things:
i. It dings the “Why do you hate your audience” bell
ii. It makes me dislike the character saying this line even more.
Because it’s a bossy, I’m-trying-to-be-tough thing to say. It’s not a quip because it’s not played for comedy, but as the line of dialogue is so lengthy and delivered so aggressively, it’s more TELL and less SHOW. I don’t know why we couldn’t have been trusted to figure out that a bonfire and a sports coach saying they were going to kick Ohio’s ass (or whatever) didn’t clue us into it being a campus sufficiently. Are there people who actually see that and think there’s a border dispute or state-to-state hostility branching out? If so, you’re on notice South Dakota, it might be time for you to become West New Jersey.
1:24 “This is murder none of us know what we’re talking about.” Cue the suspenseful organ music. This point of speech is way on the nose. It reveals plot – these people killed someone – and dialogue should not reveal plot, dialogue is a reaction to plot (you don’t need to talk about the plot, because these characters were presumably present for it happening)
It’s like saying:
“What a car wash.”
“Yes that car wash we were at sure was interesting, right my three friends who attended the car wash with me not ten minutes ago before we came to this malt shop?”
Here the audience gets spoonfed because it’s clear this show doesn’t trust anyone enough to pick up what’s going on. They’ve talked evidence, wiping prints and putting an item back, it’s a show called “How To Get Away With Murder” as the title. I’m sure people can put two and sixty-five together and see what’s happening. But no, we get this line of dialogue from the Idealistic One. Much like explaining a joke, if you have to spell out what’s going on, you’ve already lost.
These characters circle the plot somewhat or at least sort of dance around the shadow of the crisis that’s led them to this moment, before finally flipping a coin to figure what to do with a body. Have these people not seen a TV show, movie or video game? If the death was accidental I could see a sense of surprise (“Oh gosh I’m sorry I didn’t know caving in your head would kill you), but with this many people involved, I don’t think someone tripped, fell and landed repeatedly on a blunt instrument in someone’s hand.
My first suggestion was that they’d use the bonfire from the opening in some way, because when you set up a thing, you should use it in some way, and because maybe I’ve spent too much time enjoying media with body counts so the story development around murder isn’t so shocking. I also suggested they take the corpse out in a boat on the Italian coast and toss it overboard before impersonating them for a while.
So they circle the plot and stall their argument (so we really know they’re conflicted, you guys) and then flip a coin.
2:10 The toss of the coin cuts to the spinning of a bicycle tire because someone struggled I guess to think of a worse transitional device. Is it because both objects are round? It can’t be because both are spinning – the coin is flipping, the wheel is rotating, it’s not the same axis of movement. Either way, we transition out of cold blue light to bright day, which means this is a flashback to simpler happier times. The text on screen tells us it’s 3 Months Earlier, and immediately establishes that this show will cut back and forth between MurderTime and ColorfulTime.
THERE ARE NINE SECONDS OF BIKE RIDING. NINE. Are we showing off his pedaling skills? He’s not doing tricks. He’s just riding in a straight line. It’s not a custom bike. It’s not about the bike riding, is it? Whatever it is, this is filler.
2:35 We see our viewpoint character looking up at the name of the building he’s entering. Middleton Law School. The shot
lingers on the sign SO THAT YOU KNOW HE IS GOING TO LAWYER SCHOOL. Again, audience, eat your nom noms.
2:44 We move inside the building for the first reveal of a missing girl who sort of looks like Avril Lavigne. The camera is starting to stick on shots, which is the visual equivalent of writing multiple sentences about a thing. We’re one step away from having a giant arrow appear to tell us what’s important.
Our POV character, it’s worth pointing out, has some issue with his face, because for the last nearly 3 minutes, he’s made essentially one face.
See the half open mouth? Maybe it’s a jaw issue.
If this look is meant to show amazement at him being a fish out of water (we’ll later learn that he is, because he’ll TELL us, not show us), then the look should have happened AS he was coming into the scene, not brought with him from before. Now he just looks like a bipedal trout.
3:04 We endure some famous real-world lawyer name checks to help reinforce that we’re in lawyer school. Again, we’re TOLD that Keating is as good as, or better than other people. It’s not questioned. It’s just a fact in this universe. This saves us the trouble of drawing our own conclusions about how good a person is at a job. Notice how we’ve lingered on a few people with that sticky camera. Think about this in terms of an exposition paragraph. Does each one of these lines of dialogue warrant its own sentence? Could this get summarized? How could the audience care more about this stuff?
3:16 Warning! Annoying trope ahead! New Guy meets Unlikeable Woman. And we see her as a ubiquitous “strong” character who doesn’t put up with anything. She’s holding a highlighter in her hand so you know she’s focused and dedicated. The fact that she’s black and a woman helps fill out the show’s “Necessary to pacify the internet” bingo card. The idea of the “bitchy” character being synonymous with strong propagates the idea that a woman (especially a black one) has to be so tough in order to be perceived as strong, else she’s played for nearly racist comedy
This is the moment where I put the brakes on and write this out in large letters on my notepad:
Bitchy =/= strong Sassy =/= strong
Yes, sure we can “relate” to bitchy characters in the sense that we know of them in our real lives, but do we really enjoy
their company? Do we like to hang out with them? Do you want to get to know someone so forcibly tough and spiky on purpose? Does their hostility and arrogance make them attractive to you?
3:21 The assigned seating dialogue concludes the meet-not-cute and prompts the subsequent scene. I highlight this because New Guy never struggles to find his seat, although in a few seconds he’ll be in the correct seat without difficulty. For a fish out of water, he’s not demonstrating a whole lot of struggle. He’s not showing a lot of competence either.
3:37 Intro of Axis Character. An Axis Character is the character around which the whole show moves, they’re often the title character (House, Sherlock, Frasier) or they’re the biggest star in the cast (like here, it’s Viola Davis) She’s also tough. We know this based on her first line and how she delivers it: “I don’t know what terrible things you’ve done in your life up to this point but clearly your karma is out of balance to get assigned to my class.”
Remember how we just talked about tough as nails not being the same as strong? Teeth bared, claws out posturing isn’t
strength, it’s aggression. It’s a response to perceived threat, the way that strength of character is perseverance or strength
of body is bending bars and lifting gates.
The more hostile and in-your-face, the harder it is for the audience to connect, or want to connect, unless your audience
is packed with people who either submit to strength quickly, or they’re looking for aggressors to emulate so they can mask their own insecurities.
4:00 Viola Davis (I’ve now decided to just imagine that this is how Viola is everyday, that this isn’t a role for her) sells the title. For those that don’t know ‘selling the title’ is when you reference the title within the work, usually in dialogue. It’s a little cute, but it happens here.
You noticed how her head obscures part of the title, right? That’s a pretty crappy shot.
4:18 There’s a line here about “a real lawyer” which I think is meant to reinforce that Viola Davis isn’t the in the fucking around business (more on that later), but the delivery here makes me think this line was supposed to have more to the paragraph, like she was supposed to trash some people to set herself up for genius.
4:28 We’re just now getting to the plot. If we hold to the screenwriting maxim that a page is about a minute of show, we’re 4.5 pages into our script. It’s hard to parse that into novel terms, but I’m willing to say we’re about three pages in at least. Now, I’ve taken a lot of slices here every few seconds, but is it me, or does this show feel like I’ve been watching it for 13 hours?
5:22 About a minute goes by and we’re getting plot, but then we go make New Guy a fish out of water by asking him what the mens rea for the plot is. My issue with this scene, aside from the camera shot, is that this is a law school, yes, and presumably, he had to take the LSAT to get into this law school. And presumably the LSAT included the term mens rea on it … so why is he acting like he’s never heard of it? Is that because the average audience member isn’t up on their legal terminology? Or is the writer hating the audience again because they’ve managed to make the Axis Character look smarter than everyone else (which she should be, she’s teaching) and the POV character dumber than everyone else (which he shouldn’t be if we’re supposed to believe he belongs in this environment)?
In this setup of plot, we also learn that New Guy is a transfer student, so he’s unprepared. Why he doesn’t speak up and say this until he’s spoken to first, I don’t know. We also get to see glimpses of our ensemble as the aspects they represent.
New Guy – creativity and eagerness
Ruthless Guy – intelligence and focus
Idealistic One – Validation seeking
Unlikeable Woman – Take charge attitude
Other Guy – Other stuff
Often what happens in ensemble pieces, individual characters represent aspects. There’s the brave one, the smart one, the outgoing one, etc. This concept shows up in a lot of media.
7:30 With the plot thoroughly explained and the characters roughly sketched, we go forward to a new scene. Where an entire classroom is now in an office listening to the “client”. Aside from my complete confusion as to how this is allowed, because I’m pretty sure they all gained knowledge about an ongoing case and there’s gotta be rules about that I think, there’s a logistical issue.
Here’s the classroom in the previous scene:
Big room, lots of people in seats.
And here’s the classroom inside her office:
How can all these people hear one woman at the far end of the room?
Really? All these people in that space? Is her office the TARDIS? I’m calling disproportionate description. My rewrite (later in this blogpost) will reflect changes to avoid this setup.
8:41 Introduction of Frank. I really wanted him to say “badabing” or “badabing badaboom”, but instead he’s the token sexist not-a-lawyer-but-a-guy-who-gets-things-done guy.
8:50 Introduction of Bonnie. She’s pretty generic here. She pops back up later and we’ll discuss her then.
9:05 Hey you guys, remember that item we set up about eight minutes ago? Now it’s back! We’re paying off our setups, right? We all took screenwriting 101 and we were all in class for the third week, right? All we have to do now is save the cat!
The fact that this object gets called out to give it additional importance (it’s a motivator for characters to perform well, it’s only coincidentally the murder weapon or vice versa) is unnecessary. If it were just an object in the room that the camera didn’t center a shot on, this would seem more natural. And it would keep the focus on the murder and the statue’s use as a weapon or evidence. Again, this gets changed in my rewrite.
9:08 We cut BACK to the MurderTime. I’ll remind you that we were there about eight minutes ago. Eight minutes, maybe one commercial break has passed. Referencing something that happened in less time than it does to get up, put on a pot of tea, heat tea, steep tea and sit back down to drink it is not vital. It’s lazy. It’s spoonfeeding us more and more show. I know, this is Episode 1 of a show, and they want to give all the interesting stuff a chance to hook the audience, but when you’re hooking people in ways that don’t assume their intelligence, how long do you expect them to keep watching?
10:41 After a jump back to ColorfulTime to show New Guy discovering just how much out of water he is, we’re back again to MurderTime. It’s been a little over a minute since we were here last, and the swapping back and forth without a montage can be jarring. Our lawyer school student ensemble is rolling up the body in a carpet, and UnlikeableWoman is defiantly standing there so she can deny knowing what they were doing. That sounds like it should be a great line, but the narrative assumption made is that none of the other people would roll over on her for a reduced punishment. That’s a pretty telling decision, suggesting that ultimately this group of characters is bonded so tightly, and none of them would act out of self-interest. We haven’t been shown this bond, but the show has gone ahead and told us this is happening.
12:40 Here we see the bond when UnlikeableWoman throws a campus cop off their trail, and because a TV show can’t resist taking a chance to have its threats reduced, the cop has to go stop invisible offscreen looters. Neutralizing the menace is supposed to lead us to believe that the group is lucky, but it’s hard to be lucky when the writing is so packed with convenience and spoonfeeding. I’m sure if there weren’t offscreen looters, the writers would have had his walkie talkie chatter or maybe his shoe would need tying. Convenience is poison to tension and pacing.
13:33 ColorfulTime again as we watch lawyer school, and our ensemble (who we completely know now has to advance in this “competition” so we’re only really watching it so their roles (see above) get reinforced. The shock that NewGuy makes it is completely invalidated by all the flashbacks. It doesn’t matter if his character is surprised, WE aren’t. And if he’s supposed to be our surrogate, our entry point into show, then we’re BOTH supposed to be surprised. Again, this is something my rewrite will address.
19:40 NewGuy goes and talks to Keating, and discovers she’s getting some Night in her Rodanthe (IMDB it), with a guy who I thought was the Tae-bo guy (it isn’t). She gets up off the desk and goes to talk to NewGuy, and when she discovers the unlocked door … she CALLS FRANK (her associate) to yell about it. She doesn’t yell back at her paramour who clearly either teleported into the office or used the door – even if she was waiting in the office for him – so there’s no reason to call Frank. If you’re saying, “But John, clearly Frank doesn’t know his boss is enjoying the company of her not-husband and fucking around while being in the business of not fucking around, so we need to know that Frank was the last in the office and responsible for the door.”
BUT … she’s doing this in front of NewGuy. The issue really isn’t the door. The issue is that NewGuy now has information he isn’t supposed to. Why not keep the scene tense? Why give any amount of shit about getting Frank in trouble?
22:13 Here we see Ruthless Guy is gay, because he’s exploiting a one night stand for information that the team can use in this plot. It’s not all that bold a move to make a character gay, and it’s not all that racy to imply gay sex. So, this is just to rile up some viewers who want to see some pecs and watch a sort of nerdy Asian guy get a little something something. You go completely unnamed Asian guy, you go.
It’s not even a shock that a guy we’re calling Ruthless Guy would act like this to get what he wants.
Though I do like the fact that this wasn’t done by a woman. Kudos. Onward though, things are about to suck for a few minutes.
28:11 A lot has happened in the 6 minutes, and it’s completely unnecessary. All of it can go. We learn that they’re almost caught disposing of the body (there’s no need to have that happen, it doesn’t make it more tense); we meet Keating’s husband and there’s a tense moment between NewGuy and Keating (there doesn’t need to be one); and we have a scene between Frank and the Idealistic One that ends with Bonnie telling Frank to stop screwing the students. Which means Frank is going to bang the idealistic One (and while this reveals information about Frank, it means Idealistic One won’t stay Idealistic, which muddies her character arc).
Why? Because the minute she gets it on, she’s no longer idealistic. If her arc is to slowly decay under Frank’s advances, then this scene needs to be much softer, the start of a chain of dominoes, not a ham-handed clarification that Frank gets into peoples’ pants.
29:56 We’re back in time again (oh, right, I have no idea when that scene between Idealistic and Frank happened, it’s unclear, and that’s a HUGE problem in a show that’s going to regularly manipulate time to tell me a story at both ends). Now we’re with NewGuy and Keating, moments after they shared a tense look while meeting her husband. She’s cornered her student in the bathroom, and she reveals that she and her husband are trying to conceive and it’s “putting pressure on the marriage”. This means the dude she was in her office was … going to release some pressure? She and her sexual plumber don’t need a reason to be paramours. They can just be paramours. Let her reason be unknown, or later, just show a dead bedroom situation.
33:00 We finally get to some plot tension (the episode runtime is 43:40, we have 10 minutes left, and we’re just now getting to episode plot-based tension) when Bonnie has failed in her job as associate because she didn’t get some camera footage. This results in a fight as Keating gets pissed at her, and because Bonnie is a secondary character, she buckles. So this isn’t a fight between two developed characters with respective motivations, this is a chance to the audience to wonder how Keating is going to be amazing at her job. Which should be less in question because twenty-something minutes ago, all the students did was say how amazing she was. Again, this is a tensionless scene, as we have little reason to suspect that our Axis Character is going to lose in our initial experience with her.
To resolve the plot, Keating makes the move to have her sexual plumber take the stand (and thanks to yet another don’t-worry-audience-you-won’t-have-to-think-too-hard flashback, we see the sex plumber to be a cop who was supposed to be doing police-things instead of Keating-things. I guess this is meant to show us that she’s willing to risk everything for a win, but this is the first time we’ve met this whole environment, so it’s hard to know if this infidelity mattered to her. It’s hard to know if this infidelity has even been going on for a while (maybe it’s a one night stand, who knows). It’s under-established, so the risk doesn’t have any tension you’d expect it to if you want to make us care about risking it. Again, the rewrite will do something about this.
37:43 Of course our heroes win the day, and just because we can’t leave well enough alone, UnlikeableWoman delivers this line: “I want to be her”, meaning she wants to be like Keating when she grows up. That’s not a quip, that’s not sharp, that’s sort of obvious. Unlikeable and Keating are the most similar characters, it only makes sense that a possible arc for Unlikeable is that she rises up to challenge Keating’s alpha-bitch status.
Here’s the shot:
The guy in the background behind Preppy Guy IS NOT David Tennant.
See how she’s fidgeting with her engagement ring? This is a visual cue that’s willing to sacrifice her engagement (and therefore her life as it is or as it could be) to be Keating. But look at the giant spacing next to Idealistic (also, what the hell is she wearing? Everyone is all jacket and shirt, and she looks like she’s ready for Cosmos after work with the other au pairs). There’s a huge gap that ideally would be filled in, maybe by sliding Ruthless out of the foreground and into the midground, so you get a sense that they’re all equal here as a team. But that’s probably asking too much.
41:10 We also get the arc for the bigger season (presumably), referencing back to that Avril Lavigne missing girl at the top of the show. Yet again dialogue tells us plot details, as Keating and her husband discuss it, and Keating says “I bet the boyfriend did it.” Now, had the camera moved back to the TV screen, we’d be left in suspense. But no, that damned sticky camera stays on the two of them:
Again, who taught the camera guy his job, why are you showing us this damned lamp? Product placement?
practically screaming that the husband was Avril Lavigne’s boyfriend. Now, the look Keating is giving him, that’s almost announcing she knows what’s going on. If she knows he cheated, does he know about her affair?Is that suspicion supposed to drive us anywhere? I’d flag this so hard for a rewrite.
42:50 We’re back to MurderTime where the students have finally gotten the body prepped for burning, and the last moments of the show? Who’s the body? KEATING’S HUSBAND! Yes, that was an interesting development, I will give credit for it, but that means on some level you’ve just made the students and Keating adversaries rather than partners, especially if it’s later revealed that Keating actually loved her husband. We have no mention of motive, which is supposed to make us tune in to find it, and we have no idea how this reached this point.
The show goes to credits.
Before I get to my rewrite, let me point out a danger in manipulating time the way this show does. We’re starting at both ends (forget the run time of the episode for a minute, we’re talking narrative ends) – we have events around a murder contrasted against how the group of murderers all got together. If each is developed in their respective vectors (meaning the intro timeline moves us from Day 1 to Murder and Murder moves backwards to show how it was done, then planned), ultimately at the end of the season, we’re at the dead middle between Day One and Murder. Since we like to end seasons with a cliffhanger or something big to lead us forward, a reasonable middle point would be Keating discovering the plan, or at least suspecting something’s up. But that nullifies the idea that we’ve set Keating vs students as opposing forces. Which means it’s unlikely to have a Keating discovery as the midpoint-turned-finale. See what happens when you bend time? It requires far more planning, maybe too much. And when the show spoonfeeds as much as it does, why keep watching?
Before I can give you my version of this show, we need to make some substantial changes to the ensemble.
1. We’re going to cut out Preppy Guy. He didn’t do anything, so out he goes. Any emotional arc he had we can fold into RuthlessGuy.
2. We’re going to combine Bonnie and Frank, and we’ll call the character Bonnie. And Bonnie is both an associate lawyer (so we can put her in courtroom scenes) but also the willing-to-do-anything goon, only we’re not going to make sex her primary weapon. She’ll be sexy, but we’re going to make her bi or pansexual. You’ll see why in a minute.
3. Keating isn’t teaching law school, she’s running a law firm and our students are her first-year associates. Each associate, rather than be students representing different emotional facets, will now represent different legal experiences. Idealistic One will be an inner city public defender, UnlikeableWoman will be a career lawyer from a family of lawyers, RuthlessGuy has ambitions of politics, and NewGuy is a quiet small-town lawyer who got recognized because of some articles he wrote. This way, everyone is already good at their jobs, and we can dispense with the classroom/collegiate necessities.
My rewrite – Our show opens on a nightspot. A graphic tells us this is early November, X number of days before the election. The place is packed, the music is loud and the bar is lined up three deep. The camera tracks through the room over someone’s shoulder until we get to a booth in the back, where RuthlessGuy is flirting with a guy, and the two men vibe strongly. Once the shot widens, the guy we were following (who turns out to be NewGuy) gives RuthlessGuy a nod. RuthlessGuy excuses himself from the table and his flirting to make a phonecall, maybe under the auspices of “making sure his roommate isn’t going to be home” to give the flirting a hint of sex to come. What he’s really doing is calling UnlikeableWoman.
UnlikeableWoman takes the phone call after stepping away from a very fancy cocktail party, where she’s chatting with powerful people (one of them is Keating, but we don’t know that yet). Ruthless tells Unlikeable “You should come hang out with NewGuy for a drink, he looks lonely” which sounds like something flirtatious, but is in fact a code to relay information. She nods and responds affirmatively, then goes back to the cocktail party.
We cut to Bonnie and Idealistic One, they’re just getting out what was likely a mutual shower, they don’t talk, and Bonnie tells Idealistic “not to get too comfortable, she isn’t spending the night.” The camera lingers on the bathroom floor, we see a lot of mud and blood smear the shower stall floor, and wet clothes hang in the back of the shot.
A title card and some credits hit the lower-third of the screen, and they fade to reveal a graphic of “3 months earlier”, and that we’re now on a subway platform. It’s crowded, and must be a morning commute, as people are half-awake, propped up by coffee and locked to their phones. The camera weaves through the crowd, showing us NewGuy, Idealistic One, Unlikeable Woman, and Ruthless Guy, all looking more awake than most. They all board the train, endure the ride and we cut from closing subway car doors to opening elevator doors, as the foursome gets off an elevator and walks into a large boardroom. Seated at the center of the large conference table is Keating, and she’s got her back to us. She’s yelling into the phone, and from behind her back, waves the foursome to seats. Bonnie moves in from out of frame to hand each one of them a maroon folder but warns them not to open it yet. UnlikeableWoman and Ruthless Guy both disobey this order, to the glare of Idealistic One. New Guy waits patiently.
Keating slams the phone down and spins in her chair to jump us right into the plot – A woman she knows personally is accused of murdering her husband, and Keating is sure she’s innocent. The team is tasked with building a case. The problem? The evidence all makes this woman (who we’ll call Jen) look guilty, even if they come at it from several different directions. Each of the foursome propose different defenses, all to Keating’s frustration. Finally NewGuy asks if he can open the folder, and when Keating agrees, he reads and then proposes a possible defense that Keating likes. The trick though is that in order to make sure this works, they have to get a cop to admit he screwed up while on duty. The camera lingers on Keating’s face, although she agrees while trying to hide her real feelings.
The team compiles evidence, talking to different people, doing research, and then eventually Idealistic One says they need to talk to the cop. Keating says no cop would talk to first-year lawyers, so she’ll do it. Cut to Keating laughing in the shower with the cop. They spend some time in the afterglow, but Keating rushes the cop out of the apartment a few minutes before her husband comes home. He’s cold to her, not because he knows of the affair, just because he’s antagonistic. She tries to engage him, even seduce him, and he’s too far gone into complaining about work to care. He stomps out of the room and she picks up her phone to text Bonnie to “keep an eye on them.”
Cut to Bonnie, watching a meeting between NewGuy and Idealistic One. The shot makes it look like Bonnie is interested in NewGuy (so the exploited twist of her being into Idealistic One gets some interest), and we cut to Idealistic and NewGuy arguing about the ethics of how it isn’t right that they’re getting a cop to lie or something. NewGuy trusts Keating, saying she hasn’t led them wrong before, though Idealistic is pretty sure this is them risking too much one time too many.
The camera comes up on the packed courtroom, where Keating is working on the defense of her client, talking to some doctor or something. RuthlessGuy keeps handing her notes and everything seems to be going along quite well. We cut to the bathroom, and we intercut between Keating talking and gesturing, and Unlikeable Woman doing much the same thing in the empty bathroom. They move motion-for-motion. Unlikeable Woman drops a pen she was using to gesture with, and when she comes up to look in the mirror, there stands Keating, for who knows how long. Keating asks if Unlikeable’s impression has gotten any better, and the two share a tense moment. The two women exit the bathroom and wait in the hallway.
Joined by Ruthless and Bonnie, who gives them an update on what the jury is up to. Keating’s phone rings, it’s her husband and he’s trying to get her to say yes to attending some event she isn’t interested in. She eventually says yes, and returns her focus back to her team, asking where NewGuy and Idealistic are. Ruthless shrugs, Unlikeable Woman makes excuses, and Bonnie tries to call them – which is when they arrive. They can’t find the cop. Keating is furious.
Keating tracks down the cop, he’s out with his wife and newborn child, and she convinces him through a dicey conversation that if he doesn’t testify in court that he screwed up, she’ll reveal to his wife about their affair of the last several years. The cop agrees, and his wife is left completely clueless.
Cut to the cop on the stand, and rather than implicate himself, he deviates from the agreement to implicate the doctor Keating was previously questioning. Everyone rolls with the punches and the client is found not guilty. During the celebration, Keating takes another call from her husband, saying to Bonnie, “I could kill him if he doesn’t get elected.”
We jump forward in time back to the pre-election November. The foursome meet in an abandoned lot, a pile of bags and tools in hand. From a parked car emerges Bonnie, and she explains if they want to do this, here’s how to burn a car. Idealistic One sets about removing the plates and the paperwork from the interior, and we catch her looking in the backseat – at the corpse of Keating’s husband. The team preps the car for demolition, but waits… until Keating pulls up in another car, walks up to the scene, and tosses in a whole box of lit matches.
Our first episode ends with the sounds of the car burning.
I’ve told a tighter, darker story, with far fewer time jumps and more reasonable, if unknown, character motivations. But that’s just how I’d do it, because that’s the sort of show with this title that I’d like to watch.
Hope you enjoyed this longer post, hope it gave you a glimpse of what writing critique can do when you apply it to a TV show. Let’s talk later this week.