It’s a well-worn axiom that cable is where television goes to be edgy and break the rules. The Walking Dead recently featured a cannibal BBQ session. A tri-breasted hermaphrodite and a killer clown missing his lower jaw populate American Horror Story’s fourth season, Freak Show. And yet the most shocking television moments of the fall have come from a major-network drama, ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder. The series, starring Viola Davis as a law professor whose students may or may not have killed her husband, has become the most provocative show on television (and the highest-rated new series, with an average 11.7 million viewers). Its honest depiction of sexuality and race isn’t altogether surprising, though, given that Murder’s creator, Pete Nowalk, is a protégé of gasp master Shonda Rhimes (Scandal).
It might be time for the student to teach his own class: Murder made waves with its very first episode, featuring 49-year-old Davis in a compromising sexual position and gay character Connor (Jack Falahee) engaging in a verrry intimate below-the-belt act rarely depicted so explicitly on TV, cable or otherwise. But the series reached a buzzy new high with its Oct. 16 hour, which climaxed with Davis’ highly polished Annalise Keating taking off her wig, peeling off her fake eyelashes, and wiping off all of her makeup. The tough-as-nails defense attorney basically removed all of her armor and revealed a nakedness never seen before on television. The scene set the Twitter universe on fire. ”Oftentimes in movies and TV, people don’t really dare to really be private,” says Davis, who pitched the sequence to Nowalk in their first conversation about the series. ”It’s too messy. It’s not attractive. It may turn people off. Nobody is going to drool when they sleep on screen. I’m interested in the drool metaphorically. I really am.” It helps that Davis has Nowalk as a partner in crime. ”I want to put things on TV that people haven’t seen before, so if that makes it progressive, that’s great,” says Nowalk. But, he says, ”I’m just writing what my life experience is like. To me, it’s just contemporary.”
The makeup-removal scene comes on the heels of The New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley’s controversial Sept. 18 essay on Rhimes, in which Stanley referred to Davis as ”older, darker-skinned, and less classically beautiful” than Scandal star Kerry Washington. When asked if she thought the scene, shot in late August, felt like an unofficial eff-you to Stanley’s piece, Davis laughs. ”No, I don’t. I’ve got to the point in my life where I’m just wanting to be who I am,” says the actress. ”I will say this: I think it’s about time that you see a different assortment of black women on the screen. It’s time that you see different hues, different ages of women.”
In the case of Connor, who unabashedly uses sex for both pleasure and power, his behavior is portrayed with a candor usually reserved for heterosexuals. In that same Oct. 16 episode, a man Connor slept with to gain intel on a case bluntly stated, ”He did something to my ass that made my eyes water.” Responds Nowalk, ”I didn’t think that line was that shocking—I thought it was funny and it made me laugh!” Part of Nowalk’s goal in writing the character is to destigmatize gay sex on TV. ”Visibility leads to acceptance,” says the 36-year-old showrunner, who maintains he’s never gotten network pushback on Murder’s sexual content. ”I am a little surprised how much of a reaction it’s getting. Maybe it’s because I’m a gay man. We have another gay writer on staff and we’re just writing what we know.” Adds Davis, ”I think it’s a reflection of what life is like. There are homosexuals in life. There are interracial relationships in life. It’s about time that we see it reflected in art—on screen!” Says Falahee, for whom Connor has become a breakout role, ”One Twitter user tweeted after the pilot aired, ‘Thank you for making a gay character that isn’t a punchline.’ I think Pete just did a really honest and truthful job in writing this show and every facet of it. They’re just real people. In a way, it’s sad that this is groundbreaking for network television.”
Nowalk does acknowledge he’s a little nervous about maintaining these OMG moments long-term. ”We’re only [writing] episode 10, and I think of Shonda and, like, 200-plus episodes [she’s written for other shows] and it terrifies me,” says the producer. His mentor, an EP on Murder, has no fears about Nowalk’s abilities. ”His characters are bold and say things that I’m like, ‘I would never say that! I’m scandalized that you’re doing that—in a great way!”’ Rhimes told EW in August. ”His storytelling style keeps me leaning forward, and that’s exciting for me.” And Murder’s star is equally committed to going for broke creatively. ”I’m very thankful that we push the envelope, because I think network TV is ready to compete with cable in that sense,” says Davis. ”I don’t think [networks] want to be safe anymore. Shonda has shifted people in a certain way with Grey’s Anatomy and then Scandal. Now here we are.”