'How to Get Away With Murder' Boss Teases Big Mystery, Plan Beyond Season 1

The creative team behind ABC's How to Get Away With Murder has a central plan for the freshman show's long-term future that goes beyond the central murder mystery that is unveiled in the pilot.

Creator Pete Nowalk told reporters Tuesday at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour that the crux of the drama starring Viola Davis centers on mystery and that nobody appears to be who they really are. The series is a sexy, suspense-driven legal thriller about ambitious law students and their brilliant and mysterious criminal defense professor who become entangled in a murder plot that could rock their entire university and change the course of their lives.

Davis stars as Annalise Keating, the law professor and renowned criminal defense attorney described as brilliant, passionate, creative, charismatic and ruthless in the courtroom and the classroom. The character is an excellent manipulator of people, particularly her law students — five of whom she selects to work with her at the firm. Married to a psychology professor and having an affair that no one can know about, she calls her Criminal Law 100 class "How to Get Away With Murder."

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Nowalk, who started on Private Practice whose credits also include Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, said the central murder mystery unveiled in the pilot will be answered before the season finale. (The total episode count remains unclear, though he said it could be between 13 and 15 episodes.)

"I don't think the show is going to go in the first season where you expect it to go," he said of the series exec produced by Grey's and Scandal creators Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers. "We've always had a plan to launch into season two with a cool storyline. When we talked to ABC, I didn't want to do it unless it could go many seasons. … We're going to catch up to the murder before the end of the season because there's a lot to play after that and I want to keep the plot moving."

Nowalk stressed that the theme of the series is that no one is who they seem to be and that he enjoys presenting people as one thing and evolving them to be completely different characters. He singled out Liza Weil's (Scandal) Bonnie Winterbottom — one of Annalise's associates — as an example. The character, he said, has a small presence in the pilot but viewers will quickly learn "juicy stuff" about her in subsequent episodes.

Davis' Annalise, he said, will always remain a mystery and do things that "we don't always have a perspective on." "She's the center of mystery for our audience to wonder about," he added, noting that what motivates her will remain one of the central mysteries throughout the season.

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"Whether she's morally questionable or not, it comes to the heart of the character and what she's been through," he said. "The real adventure is the peeling back of the onion and what drives her to this place and what drives her to justice. Justice is very complicated and much more corrupt than you'd think."

Speaking of justice, Beers' husband, a criminal defense attorney, serves as the adviser on the series, which Nowalk called a "fun way" for him to go to law school.

For her part, star Davis noted that she was drawn to the role — and back to television — because the character is so "messy" and because she "wanted to be the show." "I have gotten so many wonderful film roles but I've gotten even more film roles where I've been invited to a really fabulous party only to hold up the wall," she said of the crush of feature film actors gravitating to television.

"I wanted to do a character that took me out of my comfort zone," she noted of Annalise. "I love the fact that she's messy and mysterious and you don't know who she is and she's not nurturing. She's messy, she's a woman, she's sexy, she's vulnerable. I feel extremely fortunate that I'm alive and still active and that this role came to me at this point in my life."

Rhimes, meanwhile, defended the show's title and lengthy network-provided hashtag — included on press materials Wednesday — of #HowToGetAwayWithMurder. "We don't consider a hashtag when we're writing the title," said the prolific producer who saw live-tweeting help people including Oprah Winfrey and Lena Dunham find Scandal. "The idea that we decide what Twitter is going to call something is a very weird notion. … Twitter has a lovely community, and it's a new notion now that networks are trying to push hashtags to the community of Twitter. Twitter makes stuff up, and that's far more interesting."

How to Get Away With Murder debuts at 10 p.m. on Sept. 25. Watch a promo for the show above.

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
Twitter: @Snoodit