This has gone on long enough, this business where I haven’t written an entire post about The Good Wife and how marvelous it is. Readers, I need a moment of your time. (Good Wife reference! Get it? Anyone? Get it? Legal Sister?) If you are like Past Jenny, you have heard of The Good Wife and its acclaimedness, but you haven’t watched it because you do not like Chris Noth and although you like Alan Cumming just fine and have nothing against Julianna Margulies, that is not enough to induce you to watch a show that looks like it will be predictable and dull.
You have not asked, but I will tell you, what thrills me about TV, which is that it does all the best stuff from all the other storytelling media. Like books, TV can do the kind of delicate, gradual character and plot work that I love. Like comics, it can use up an entire episode (issue in the case of comics) doing something completely different to what you are used to, and then go back to its regular thing, without disrupting the narrative flow. Like film the people move and breathe and speak volumes with brief instants of eye contact. It also has some of that quality of theater where you feel it’s possible the story will notice you are there, though of course this is less electrifying when it’s not live. But I adore the weird, dysfunctional relationship that exists nowadays between television and the Internet, where the internet spends all this time holding forth passionately about TV, and TV carries on unconcernedly with what it was planning to do all along; and then very occasionally (or relatively frequently in the case of Dan Harmon) TV turns its head and looks straight at the internet and says hello (and sometimes thank you).
(She, please reread that paragraph whenever you have any doubts about whether it’s worth spending your time watching all the shows I told you to watch. Yes. It very definitely is.)
I think it is rare for TV to live up to all the narrative possibilities inherent in the genre. There are an unbelievable number of pitfalls: a show can end up too episodic (like Castle) or too committed to the long-term stuff (like The Wire — terribly satisfying in the long run, but there are barriers to entry); too soapy (like One Tree Hill) or totally uninterested in the emotional lives of the characters (like 30 Rock); wildly inconsistent from week to week (like Glee) or impossible to watch without already knowing the whole entire story so far (like the fourth season of Angel). TV shows never know if they’re going to run for one more season or seven, so it’s hard to plan an endgame. The whole thing is fraught with peril.
But sometimes, sometimes a show will come along that gaily avoids all of these mistakes, a show that has the cast and cares about the characters, a show where every episode is satisfying in its own right, but is also handing you pieces of character or plot development that you will need later on. I would argue that Firefly is television done exactly right, in spite of its woefully short run, and I would say the same about the first season of Veronica Mars. And — twenty minutes later she finally arrives at the point — The Good Wife.
Alicia Florrick (played by Julianna Margulies; skip this paragraph if you know the basic premise of the show) is the mother of two and wife of state’s attorney Peter Florrick (Chris Noth, but he’s supposed to be a bit sleazy). When Peter is disgraced and jailed following a prostitution ‘n’ bribes scandal, Alicia has to go back to work as a lawyer at the firm of Stern, Lockhart & Gardner. She is in competition for a long-term position at the firm with another first-year associate, Cary Agos (Logan from Gilmore Girls, playing basically a more mature, lawyer version of Logan from Gilmore Girls — which is fun). There is some mentor-relationship development with senior partner Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski being unrelentingly delightful), and friend-relationship development with the enigmatic investigator Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi being unrelentingly sexy), and old-love development with senior partner and Alicia’s former something Will Gardner (Josh Charles of Sports Night).
It’s just, wow, it is TV done absolutely exactly right. Each episode follows a legal case being handled at Alicia’s firm, and these tend to be interesting, and complicated, and thematically related to the show’s ongoing storylines. (And they do not drive Legal Sister batty, which is a coup, trust me, because watching legal shows with Legal Sister is like watching someone club baby seals to death.) Around the edges of this, or occasionally front and center, are the ongoing plotlines: Alicia and her kids (her kids are actual characters) dealing with the fallout from the scandal; Peter’s attempts to clear his name and get back into political life; Alicia and Kalinda’s Bechdel-rule following friendship; surprisingly fun office politics; and a bunch of other things I can’t talk about because they are too spoilery.
I am having the same problem right now that I always have with State of Play, which is that any description I attempt of it falls short of expressing what is so good about it. For one thing, the cast of The Good Wife is terrific: great chemistry, and everyone turns in a nuanced performance even when behaving semi-unsympathetically. The plot of the show reshuffles the characters regularly (but organically!), so you are always seeing new character combinations bringing out new sides in each other. The writing, too, is very very good. Tidy solutions and clean moral decisions are few and far between. There are moments of genuine weirdness, the sort that real life dishes out, and these actually feel like life, not TV trying to do life. When the writing asks for an emotional response, it does so subtly, and because the plot and characters have earned it.
(In a spoilery interview with showrunners Michelle and Robert King, they say that the point of a particular plot thread was that “the audience thought we were going to take things operatic, when in fact the eventual solution was very small and very human.” I love them so much for this. First because I totally thought that plot thread was going to go operatic and shark-jump-y, and I was all set to be dissatisfied with it; second because I love knowing that the writers have an endgame and are not just hurling plot points at the wall like spaghetti to see what sticks; and third because the small scope of the eventual solution, and the way it was completely in line with everything we knew about those characters, made it hurt so much more than something operatic would have.)
Speaking of cast, the guest stars are awesome sauce. Practically every actor from The Wire shows up at some point, including Chris Partlow as a preacher (I know, it’s really weird, I keep thinking he’s got Snoop and a nail gun hidden behind his back). Michael J. Fox and America Ferrara guest in a couple of episodes, and there have been strong implications that they will be back in season three. I only mention this because I know everyone loves Michael J. Fox and America Ferrara.
I have to give a particular shout-out to the second season finale. The finale of the first season had a traditional sort of cliffhanger, what will she choose at this crossroads moment, and that was fine. The finale of the second season does something different, and I would argue, more awesome? but your mileage may vary. The second season saw a tremendous amount of change for all of the characters, both personally and professionally; the finale reminds us of this, and then gives small, tantalizing peeks at the future ramifications of everything that has come before. The pieces are being set in place for season three, and although the people are the same as before, they’re not playing the same positions. They’re not necessarily even playing for the same team. It is the best possible way of saying, We love these characters too, and all the stuff we’ve set up for them, we will pay out in September.
Finally, a word about the women. I really like it that The Good Wife has plenty of interesting women, and I particularly like it that the relationship at the center of the show is the friendship between Alicia and Kalinda. Yay, show! Thanks, show! Television knows it can’t go wrong by putting sexual tension on a slow boil, but The Good Wife plays out all of its relationships that way. Friendship ones too! I cannot tell you how gratifying it is. Other television shows, take note! Put time into building your relationships! It will pay off in dividends of extreme awesomeness!
(HERE THERE BE SPOILERS SO SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU DO NOT WANT THEM: I am so, so, so sad that Kalinda and Alicia broke up. I had a hard time watching the penultimate episode of this season because I infinity didn’t want them to be in a fight. I am assuming the third season will be about gradually reconvening their friendship? As I will otherwise be excessively sad?)
Just go watch The Good Wife. Go do it now. Now is the time. Summer is here but brings not that many summer shows, so take this opportunity to Netflix The Good Wife. Then when it returns on Sunday nights in September, you will be all set to welcome it back with as much love as me.