I’m a newcomer to the CBS legal drama The Good Wife, now in its third season. I’ve spent the last day and a half watching the first season from my sick bed. It was a combination of things that made me finally give in, despite the fact that a new network legal drama wasn’t particularly high up on my priorities. People whose opinions I respect say good things about the show, and then I saw some really great things said about it on PBS’s excellent recent documentary, America in Prime Time, so here we are. The premise is simple: Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) has to return to the law in order to support her family after her philandering husband, Peter (played by Law & Order veteran Chris Noth), an Illinois state’s attorney, is disbarred and jailed for a sex/corruption scandal. Structurally, the show is divided into two slightly overlapping major elements. First, the main plot, which follows Alicia Florrick as she tries to balance the aftermath of a very public humiliation with the workload of being a junior associate and being a single mother of two, and second, the Case of the Week format common to nearly every courtroom drama ever to grace American television.
The cast is very strong. Julianna Margulies gives a surprisingly subtle performance that’s more about cumulative effects than individual scenes. She’s best with small expressions in scenes with a sense of stillness, but she also manages to go between genuinely tender and brutally cold without appearing inconsistent or in any way out of character. I haven’t seen a lot of her work, but this is the best performance she’s given of those I have seen.
Chris Noth doesn’t have a lot to do, and Josh Charles (as Will Gardner, one of the named partners at Alicia’s firm) plays a variation of the same character he’s done in everything since Sports Night. It’s not a bad character, but it would be nice to see something new from him. Christine Baranski’s portrayal of Diane Lockhart (another of the named partners) is exceptional, in part because despite being cast as a rich, powerful woman (a common role for her), she easily sidesteps any potential accusations of typecasting by giving a really warm performance, one that’s strikingly different from the borderline parodic ones she’s given in comedic versions of that role in the past. Relative newcomer Archie Panjabi (who I know best as Maya from the original UK series Life on Mars) is also great as investigator Kalinda Sharma. She is particularly excellent at keeping a subplot about the question of her sexuality from overwhelming her character. The part is written very well, but an actress not on her game could easily wind up wielding that aspect of the character like a cudgel, which would be the absolute wrong way to play her. Alan Cumming is just Alan Cumming with the volume turned down a bit, and it works fine.
The show also uses an excellent array of quality character actors, people like David Paymer, Michael Boatman, Peter Riegert, Peter Gerety (who most will know from The Wire, but I liked him better in Homicide: Life on the Street), and personal favourites Joe Morton, Carrie Preston, Amy Acker, and Martha Plimpton (and of course Gillian Jacobs makes an appearance in the pilot).
The ongoing plot about Alicia, her career, and her husband that makes up half the structure of the show, is unique and exceptional, focusing not, as one might expect, on the political ups and downs of the prominent public figure Peter Florrick (you can catch Kelsey Grammar in the new series Boss if you want that), but on her balancing act. One could also argue that it’s a show about balancing private and public spaces, but those spaces commingle significantly after Peter is released from prison, and we are offered glimpses of his life and career through cracks in the door and shots over the shoulder. The information accumulates over the course of the season, and what happened to Peter and how he’s responding gradually becomes clear, but we still see it primarily through how people treat Alicia on the job. It almost seems like the early episodes can’t seem to decide whether or not they’re actually about Alicia, or if they’re just about Peter as seen through Alicia’s life, like drawing a figure by filling in the negative space. I say almost, because the writers use it as a way to push her towards establishing her own agency, and by the end of the season, The Good Wife is unquestionably about Alicia, almost as though it took twenty-three episodes for the writers to convince both the audience and Alicia herself that the show really should be about her.
If I were to have any complaints about the main plotline, it’s with some of the children. Zach Florrick’s unusual technical prowess is a little too much like “kids these days” hand-waving, while his girlfriend Becca’s (not unrealistic) aggressive sexuality just seems like one plot point too many.
The Case of the Week element of the show is a bit more problematic. On the one hand it’s the primary vehicle by which Alicia establishes her new sense of self (and how they sneak in all those great supporting actors), but there’s nothing new there in terms of a network legal drama. I’ve seen these cases before, I’ve seen the legal trickery and the research and the late nights with empty pizza boxes and those cool folded cardboard cartons of Chinese food that you never see in the real world. I’ve seen the awkward opening statements and the love/hate relationships between opposing counsel. I have seen it all a million times before, and it’s not even self-aware about it like Boston Legal (an unbelievably brilliant show, despite its problems). Eventually one case began to blur into another, and they started to lose their sense of urgency. I can’t help but wonder if they were only included at the network’s request.
Since my case of the plague (or rather this nasty head cold) doesn’t show any signs of abating, I’ll probably move on to the opening episodes of season two tomorrow. It is my hope that the main plotline will continue to be strong, and the kinks in the Case of the Week format will iron themselves out.