Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes is producing a new show that is — basically — based on Penn.
"How to Get Away with Murder," which premieres tonight at 10 p.m., takes place at a “prestigious Philadelphia university,” where eager students compete to land a job at their criminal law professor’s firm. The pilot filmed scenes on 40th through 42nd streets between Spruce and Locust in March.
Penn was the show’s first choice for filming, according to Sharon Pinkenson, the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, but the University turned down the offer in order to avoid disturbing campus life. The Film Office assisted producers in securing campus locations for filming. In the end, "Murder’s" campus scenes were filmed on the respective campuses of Bryn Mawr and Ursinus colleges, as well as at Media Providence Friends School.
ABC, which is airing the show, could not be reached for comment until after its premiere.
Pinkenson speculated that show creator Shonda Rhimes, who is also the creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, chose to set "Murder" in Philadelphia because the city differs from the film industry norm. “It’s the perfect combination," she said. "There’s a great Ivy League college,” referring to Penn, “and lawyers in Philadelphia have been famous for centuries.”
In the show’s trailer, actress Viola Davis, in character as a criminal law professor, strides into a packed lecture hall a leather purse and an evident attitude. On the board, she writes both the name of the name of her fictitious course, Criminal Law 100.
Criminal law professor Paul Robinson teaches the real-life Criminal Law 100 at Penn Law. In a single lecture, Robinson tackles manslaughter, criminal homicide and statutory rape cases.
“One of the complications of teaching criminal law is [the students] have watched a lot of the shows and think they know what the laws are,” he said.
While Robinson and Davis’s character teach the same course, they have backgrounds in different sides of the courtroom. Davis’ character is a high-profile defense attorney, who often uses dirty methods to get her clients acquitted. Robinson, on the other hand, is a former federal prosecutor and counsel for the United States Senate Subcommittee on Criminal Laws and Procedures.
In one of Robinson's regular Friday afternoon classes, the class dynamic is reminiscent of a scene on the small screen. Students flip through fat red books and scribble down notes on one of the day’s cases — whether or not to convict a group of producers for the death of children on a movie set.
Robinson abandons his podium to lounge on a desk in the corner of the room. With the omniscient air of Harvey Specter from "Suits" or Olivia Benson of " Law & Order: SVU," he responds to students with answers that inspire an even more fervent round of questions.
“We’re talking about criminal law, is this kind of risk taking in this kind of situation — movie making — condemnable?” he says, gesturing to the lecture hall.
After 10 more minutes of debate, Robinson reveals that the studio in the case was found not guilty of aggravated manslaughter. The next case yields a discussion of whether or not to convict a legally mentally disabled man who claims he unknowingly committed statutory rape.
“Have a sense of the difference between law on the books and law in the real world — what actually happened," Robinson said, stressing the use of real-life cases in courses like his and the one featured in "Murder." "It’s a little less predictable, things aren’t necessarily working the way you think they were.”
Robinson won’t be watching the show, but he is excited to see the criminal law-centered conversation that will follow.
“The fact that there are all these shows is evidence that humans have this interest in issues of blame and punishment,” he said. Every human has had this challenge — what do you do [with] those societal norms, what do you do if people breach them?”
"Murder" isn’t the first time Penn has made an appearance in movies and television. Parts of the 2009 blockbuster "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" were filmed on campus, as well as the 2000 Bruce Willis drama, "Unbreakable." The pilot for cult-hit "It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia" features characters walking down Locust Walk and external shots of Van Pelt Library. The campus also makes cameos in later episodes.
Although the pilot was filmed in Philadelphia, the rest of "Murder" will be filmed in Los Angeles now that the show has been picked up for a full season. Davis’ contract, Pinkenson said, includes a mandate that regular filming take place in the L.A. area.
“We were disappointed that the series didn’t get picked up to film here,” Pinkenson said. “But when [someone is] a big star they have the power to make those decisions.”
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