On the surface — and thanks to ABC’s heavy-handed promotion — it’s easy to view How to Get Away With Murder, the network’s hit new crime drama, as just another Shonda Rimes show. Yet, it’s something very personal to creator Peter Nowalk, the openly gay writer and producer who got his start writing on the hitmaker’s other two series, Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. “It feels like something I would have created whether I worked for her or not,” he explains.
There’s no doubting that there are obvious similarities — a strong female lead for starters — between his show and the other two ShondaLand productions that air during ABC’s “Thank God It's Thursday” line up, but Nowalk drew much of his inspiration from legal thrillers of the ‘80s and ‘90s. “They don’t make those movies much anymore,” Nowalk says of a viewing experience he wanted to recreate for TV audiences. The result is a gripping legal drama starring Viola Davis as a law professor, who with the help of her students, defends new suspects in the courtroom each week while trying to solve a overarching murder mystery of her own.
Debuting to over 14 million viewers in September, Murder sparked a frenzy of interest in large part to the show’s other star, Jack Falahee. The actor plays a gay law student, Connor Walsh, who is “simultaneously brilliant, arrogant, manipulative, sexually predatory, and totally irresistible” and also has sex with another man in the premiere — a significant step for a LGBT character on a basic cable network. “Connor’s probably the least like me,” Nowalk says. “But in terms of putting out the character in network TV, especially someone who’s young and confident, is very important to me.” As for the sex scene, Nowalk says it made it into the story because it’s part of who Connor is. “He’s sexual. And he can use that to his benefit but it’s also just one of the ways that he lives and feels good.”
While it’s easy for any character to get lost on an ensemble show, it’s important that Connor doesn’t get marginalized — or just have sex week to week. (In the first three episodes, Falahee’s character has had sex twice on screen.) “There are some other gay writers on the staff and we have made it a priority that we give him a love interest,” Nowalk says. And much of that will be explored through Oliver, a computer hacker played by openly gay actor Conrad Ricamora (who originated the role of Nino Aquino in the Off-Broadway hit Here Lies Love). A development for which fans can thanks Rimes.
Diversity has always been at the core of all of Rimes’s series—whether it's race, gender, or sexuality. And more importantly, she has focused on telling human stories. Without her, Nowalk might not have challenged himself to write real characters. “She’s such a risk taker,” he says, explaining she's also a supporter. “I was always insecure about my own vision or my own voice, and she’s been very helpful in letting me have more confidence just believing in my show.”
With over 10 million viewers tuning in each week and news that ABC ordered a full season of Murder, Nowalk shouldn’t feel insecure anymore.