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Because beyond just the story and stylistic similarities to previous Rhimes work—Scandal in particular—Murder also upholds the Shondaland tradition of a diverse cast. But Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and now How To Get Away With Murder don’t employ actors of color for the sake of checking off boxes; they provide these actors with meaningful, real, multidimensional roles that can’t be collapsed into racialized stereotypes (though New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley tried desperately hard to do so).

Because of respectability politics, audiences will often hold characters of color—and black women in particular—to different standards. Rutina Wesley’s Tara on True Blood was hated fiercely by fans for her flaws despite not being any worse than any of the other characters on the show (in fact, Tara, for me, was one of the only heroic characters that show had). Kat Graham’s Bonnie Bennett has similarly been scrutinized for “bad choices” by fans of The Vampire Diaries. Meanwhile, Elena Gilbert gets to pretty much do whatever she wants without losing her hero status.

When critics talk of the great “antiheroes” of TV drama right now, they mention the Walts, the Dons, and the Rusts. But what about Olivia Pope? White men on television, of course, get to be morally questionable, and people will love it. Black women on television are expected to be role models, to “represent” the race in a positive light. Black women on television are allowed to be heroes, but not in a way that threatens whiteness. They are allowed to be strong, but not overpowering; smart, but not arrogant. They’re expected to be independent but also team players.

At the forefront of How To Get Away With Murder is Annalise Keating (Davis, whose performance is unquestionably the best part of this pilot). Annalise, much like Olivia Pope, flies in the face of all that bullshit. She’s a tough-as-nails criminal defense attorney and law professor whose students, rightfully, both fear and admire her. She cheats in court and cheats on her husband with a hunky detective. She’s a real human woman with real human flaws.

“I want to be her,” Michaela Pratt (Aja Naomi King) says when Annalise and her team literally slow-motion strut out of court after winning yet another case. Annalise certainly isn’t “likable,” but that’s because the characters of How To Get Away With Murder transcend the silly likable/unlikeable dichotomy. And at the end of the day, you do want to be her. Not because she fits the mold as your typical “role model.” But because she’s awesome. And characters of color don’t usually get to be awesome. They’re often too tied up in tokenizing goals on the writers’ parts or racist expectations from viewers or respectability policing from both sides of this equation to just be. Let alone just be awesome.

How to Get Away with Murder: Pilot, Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, AV Club (via white-tea-and-lightning)