How to Get Away with the Most Inclusive Casting on Network TV
When it premiered in the fall of 2014, How to Get Away with Murder followed in the footsteps of uber-producer Shonda Rhimes's other buzz-worthy drama, Scandal, by putting an African-American woman front and center as the lead of a primetime drama on a broadcast television network. And not only was she black; she was a woman of certain age (nearing 50) and black. It's both sad and frustrating to see how those seemingly simple traits were considered groundbreaking just six years ago, a time when the other majors were still picking up pilots centered around (mostly) white male doctors, cops, and lawyers.
But after a first season that proved to be as refreshingly compelling as any cable drama and earned star Viola Davis a well-deserved and historic Emmy, the drama about law professor Annalise Keating and her students getting embroiled in countless murder plots...went even further. Not only was Annalise middle-aged and black, she was also bisexual. (We saw her sleep with her white husband, her black male lover, and a former flame who happened to be a white woman.) She was also an alcoholic. And she was also a survivor of sexual abuse. I can't remember the last time I watched a lead character this complex on (I repeat) broadcast network television. Ever.
One of the most powerful moments in the May 14 series finale involved Annalise defending herself in court while on trial for the many sins her colleagues had committed over the past several years. The scene, written by creator Peter Nowalk, was a reminder for viewers, underscoring how bracingly original this flawed heroine is. In other words, she spells out everything for the jury—and for anyone who may have missed the past few seasons—because that's just what broadcast network television tends to do with its scripted narratives.
“It’s redefined the leading lady on television—what it means to be a woman, what it means to be sexual, what it means to be valued without being a Mr. Potato Head of male desirability," Viola Davis told Entertainment Weekly earlier this year. "It redefined how we see television.”
However, as the seasons continued and the plots became more convoluted, I started to notice that HTGAWM was also becoming a showcase for so much more. As Roxane Gay writes in 2014's Bad Feminist, "The networks offer a numbing sea of whiteness save for shows produced by Shonda Rhimes, who makes a deliberate effort to address race, gender, and, to a lesser extent, sexuality when she casts." (taken from the essay titled "Feel Me. See Me. Hear Me. Reach Me.")
If only Ms. Gay had waited to see what HTGAWM would deliver, she would have witnessed a noticeable shift in the broadcast network television landscape, thanks to the inclusive contributions made by Rhimes and Nowalk. She would have seen a more sizable effort was made to address those aforementioned subjects. And the proof is in the casting of the show's players: more than half of the cast of characters was non-white, several of whom fell within the LGBTQ spectrum. No other broadcast network show has featured, all at once, a bisexual African-American heroine, a gay Asian man married to a white man, several black men in positions of power, a Mexican love interest, a biracial lesbian attorney, and a Latino villain among countless guest stars that effortlessly represented the ever growing melting pot that is America. I emphasize "effortlessly" because this kind of casting never felt like a corporation trying to fulfill a diversity quota. No flashing arrows blatantly pointing it out. They all just...existed together, letting the nature of their multi-dimensional characters propel every story further. (Eagle-eyed viewers should have also caught the diverse background talent that filled out scenes throughout the years; kudos to the extras casting team.)
“Over the course of its first season, HTGAWM has pummeled boundaries when it comes to how diversity, especially in sexual orientation and race, is portrayed on TV—the effects of which we can’t even start to measure now,” reported The Daily Beast back in February 2016. “No broadcast television series is doing more for diversity in primetime than this one.”
And after six seasons of twist and turns, How to Get Away with Murder left us with a series finale that answered burning questions while adding more to the already high body count. However, it leaves an imprint that deserves more attention. What the cast and crew have accomplished is simply outstanding and is wholeheartedly appreciated by this writer. Together, they nourished an audience that was tired of the straight, white hegemony and was hungry for content that presents minorities as whole characters rather than stereotypes and includes LGBTQ representations that treat characters with the same sexual freedom and visibility as straight characters.
That all said, the last five minutes of the final episode (as seen below) came together to create one of the most satisfying endings in recent years. It was certainly emotional, hopeful for some characters, but more importantly, hopeful for a viewing audience that continues to dream of a world of widespread inclusivity. A world in which no such dream needs to ever exist.