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10/30/2014 06:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

ABC's Red-Hot How to Get Away with Murder Proves Broadcast Isn't Playing It Safe

In an exciting but not altogether unexpected development, the addition of How to Get Away with Murder to ABC's schedule now gives each of the Big Three networks a current drama series that challenges basic cable's status as the home of top-quality, unapologetically adult programming.

The other two shows that share the distinction of being utterly "cable-worthy" are CBS' The Good Wife (the first to reach this exciting status, and still the best) and NBC's The Blacklist (a handsomely produced thrill-ride that for better or worse has brought pay cable-level violence and brutality to broadcast television). Each of these three can be positioned alongside the best that AMC and FX have to offer. One might also put ABC's sizzling Scandal and NBC's midseason marvel Hannibal on this short list of broadcast series that often dare to go there, content wise.

Given the strides into grown-up entertainment that these shows and a few others are taking, it appears that broadcast television is finally overcoming antiquated restrictions, moving into the modern age and becoming genuinely competitive with cable networks and streaming services, at least as far as scripted content is concerned. Let's hope nothing happens to derail this welcome momentum.

How to Get Away with Murder, like The Good Wife and The Blacklist before it, may be stretching standards and breaking boundaries, but it is worth noting that these shows wouldn't be in a position to do what they are doing had so many others not pushed so many envelopes before them. Off the top of my head, a partial list of such broadcast history-makers would include NBC's Hill Street Blues and ABC's NYPD Blue (perhaps the most groundbreaking broadcast dramas ever); ABC's thirtysomething; NBC's St. Elsewhere and ER, and Fox's 24.

The adults-only show generating the most excitement right now is ABC's brand-new Murder, a fact that should come as no surprise to anyone who saw its sizzling pilot last summer. There were other fall season pilots that I liked, including The CW's The Flash and Jane the Virgin, but Murder was the only one that left me champing at the bit to see more. Three more episodes in and it hasn't disappointed.

The pilot made clear that this new series from super-producer Shonda Rhimes and her colleague Pete Nowalk (who actually created the show) was going to be a fast and furious blend of riveting legal action and searing personal drama full of more twists and turns than even Rhimes' Scandal (which is more riveting this season than during its first three, something I wasn't sure would be possible). But as wild as it was, it didn't prepare anyone for the show's uncommonly frank presentation of the sex life of one of its main characters (Connor, a gay law student who will seemingly stop at nothing to get ahead) or that startling sequence in the October 16 episode when fearsome attorney and professor Annalise Keating removed her wig, false eyelashes and makeup before confronting her husband with damning evidence of his affair. (Her outrage was outrageous, given that she is no stranger to extramarital escapades.)

It's difficult to determine which act has generated the most talk and Twitter excitement of anything seen or heard on television so far this season: Viola Davis, the actress who plays Annalise, revealing herself in high-definition close-up in so bold a manner, or her pointed question to her cheating husband, "Why is your penis on a dead girl's phone?" (ABC took particular delight in promoting that phrase without actually revealing it in its entirety.)

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It strikes me as somewhat disconcerting that an attractive middle-aged actress allowing herself to be seen without makeup caused such a stir. Further, while he is certainly not the only sexually active gay male character on broadcast television, the fact that young Connor is as open about his private life as he is and candidly discusses his sexual conquests with his fellow students, including heterosexual males, shouldn't be such a big deal, either. (Jack Falahee, the actor who plays Connor, and Conrad Ricamora, who plays his sometime lover Oliver, are pictured above.) But these things represent a collective ongoing progress that isn't simply welcome on broadcast; it is representative of what the medium must do (with great care and quality, of course) if it is to remain relevant in a world in which children are raised with easy access to the Internet and all of the surprises it holds in store.

As impressed as I am with Murder there are things about it that are starting to bug me. I don't understand why Annalise's home is so dark and dingy, or why she and her husband Sam would choose to live in the same building in which Annalise maintains her legal practice, thereby insuring that they almost never have any privacy. And I can see myself getting tired of the show's narrative structure, which has the story jumping from present (when the legal students in Annalise's charge are frantically trying to dispose of Sam's dead body) to the recent past (which has everyone involved in the mystery surrounding the murder of a cheerleader, plus lots of other cases and personal trauma-dramas).

Still, it's a thrill to have yet another series on a broadcast network schedule that looks to be one of the bravest and boldest on television. I imagine the dramas in development for next season are going to reflect the particular strengths of this striking show. I should think they would have to.

This column was first published in the Planet Ed blog on MediaBizBloggers.