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How to Get Away with Murder has the hottest gay sex on television. That's progress.

How to Get Away with Murder
How to Get Away with Murder
ABC

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz was speaking to a class of community college students in New Jersey five years ago when he unleashed a searing observation about representation and being a non-white person in America.

"If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves," he told the class, telling them his experience of growing up and never seeing people like himself in the reflection that is television, literature, or movies.

It's not that television hasn't tried to be more inclusive. But television history is littered with failed attempts at "diversity," resulting in token characters who end up being the only minority (racial, gender, sexual) in the room, and, more often than not, too perfect or too earnest to be real human beings. Diaz's words don't just refer to the way someone looks or the color of someone's skin. They refer to these characters having as wide a range of potential roles as we afford to white, straight men.

Having a minority character be perfect or saintly is as unrealistic as having no one there. And How to Get Away with Murder knows this better than any show on television.

It all starts with Viola Davis

A product of Shonda Rhimes's Shondaland production company and creator Peter Nowalk, How to Get Away has taken characters — a gay man; a privileged, young, intelligent black woman; a black man on a law school waitlist; an Ivy-League educated Latina — that have usually been dutiful token characters on network shows, cooked them in same gooey soup of amorality belonging to Tony Soprano and Frank Underwood, and shown that they can be as morally confusing and dastardly as the rest of humanity.

Turning these would-be saints into sinners is the best part of this fall season's most exciting new show.

Viola Davis is the show's star, and her portrayal of central character Annalise Keating, a defense attorney, is incredibly removed from the roles Davis has played in the world of film. Before the show, it was difficult to think of Davis — who crafted her art on stage and at Juilliard — without thinking of her heart-breaking, Oscar-nominated work as the saintly Aibileen Clark in The Help.

There's little of that sturdy, quiet virtue in How to Get Away with Murder. Instead, Davis is given lines like "Why is your penis on a dead girl's phone?"

How to Get Away with Murder (ABC)

Keating is a cheater, a schemer, a champion, and a stalwart. She is loyal, brazen, salty, stubborn, egotistical, and vulnerable. She's as virtuous as she is flawed. And each week, the show is structured to have her lecture to her students how to play the field, stack the deck, sell your soul, navigate the godless world of the law, and come out on top.

"A lot of lawyers or doctors who have names but absolutely no lives. You're going to get your three or four scenes, you're not going to be able to show what you can do," Davis told The New York Times magazine in September, explaining the roles she's been offered. "I don't see anyone on TV like me in a role like this."

Keating is also an enabler — if not a pusher — in terms of morally gray behavior. Putting aside the overarching plot that involves Keating's students covering up a possible murder, each one has shown their own agency in bending or even breaking the rules. And in so doing, the show has allowed for them to break out of token character status as well.

Laurel Castillo (Karla Souza) started off as the earnest martyr trying to shield a fellow student from Keating's wrath. Now, she's is tampering with juries and cheating on her goody-goody Legal Aid boyfriend. Wesley Gibbons (Alfred Enoch) is sneaking into police stations and sleeping with a client. And Michaela Pratt (Aja Naomi King), the show's perfect princess, has, in the course of a young semester, learned how to lie to obtain a witness's medical records and shown flashes of casual homophobia.

Connor Walsh is having the hottest gay sex on television

Then there is Connor Walsh, the show's gay character, played by the devilish Jack Falahee.

Like Davis's Keating, there hasn't been a character quite like Walsh on network television. Throughout pop culture, there's been a trend of glossing over gay men's sexual lives. Like sisters in Victorian novels, gay men are often introduced and then rushed into dreams of earnest long-term loves (see: Glee) or marriages (see: Kevin Keller of Archie; Modern Family). If that's not the case, they often start out already married (see: The New Normal).

Politically, framing gay life around the idea of commitment and love has helped pave the way for same-sex marriage victories in states around the country. And there's no way to quantify the big impact these depictions have had in making LGBT life relatable and respected. But these portrayals are still safe, easily digestible, and upright. They tend to show sex only in the context of romance or marriage, and they're rarely overtly sexual.

Connor

One of Connor's sex scenes (ABC; GIF by Towleroad)

Connor breaks this bedrock. For the most part, he's allowed to have sweaty, unctuous, sex (sometimes in courthouse restrooms) without the hint of a date. He uses it to get ahead, and he isn't (again, for the most part) punished when he does. The sex he's having is as stylized and eroticized as everyone else's romps. And that executive producer Shonda Rhimes doesn't differentiate a "gay" sex scene from any other one makes it even more refreshing.

That might be changing. In recent episodes, the show has started to show Connor developing a tender torch for a man named Oliver. There were flowers and puppy dog eyes in last week's episode, as well as a heavy sense that Connor's conscience and a yearning for monogamy could be making an appearance in future episodes. Here's hoping it doesn't come to dominate his character. That would be a shame.

The characters on How to Get Away can get away with devious behavior partly because they are protected by their desire to be lawyers, a tribe of people that television has designated to have free passes on morality. This type of behavior might come across differently if, say, this were a show about teachers. But why the characters are able to get away with this sort of thing is ultimately less interesting than the fact that they're getting away with it at all.

The territory of lying, cheating, and getting laid has long been the stomping grounds for television's "difficult men" — the Don Drapers, Tony Sopranos, Walter Whites, Nate Fishers, and Dexter Morgans of the medium. Their effect on pop culture and how we view our protagonists has been indelible. How to Get Away flips this script. Having gay people, women, and non-white characters play in the same kind of dark realm as a Soprano or a Draper is progress.

That How to Get Away feels like rebellion also shows how much further there is to go. But it also suggests that TV's diversification is about more than just representation. Someday, it might be about people of all races, genders, and sexualities getting to play the devils as well as the saints.