Since The Wire left the air, fans of the show’s dense, multi-layered storytelling have been searching for its heir. They’ve been unable to find it in other cop shows, series like Southland or The Chicago Code, which too carefully ape the earlier series’ most basic moves. They’ve been unable to find it in Wire creator David Simon’s follow-up series, Treme, which is a terrific piece of television but about as far from The Wire’s narrative density as Simon could have possibly gotten. And they haven’t even been able to find it on HBO, which continues to make sprawling series with many fully realized characters but tends to stick them in the past (Boardwalk Empire) or in other worlds (Game Of Thrones).
It might be surprising, then, that the true successor to The Wire has come not just from a broadcast network but from CBS, a network that often seems terrified of narrative complexity. The Good Wife, which airs its second-season finale tonight, has grown so far beyond its initial premise— a woman whose husband has wronged her in a publically humiliating fashion returning to the workforce—that it’s almost jarring to see that element of its premise return, as it has in the last few weeks. In the latter half of its first season and especially its second season, The Good Wife has grown beyond the simple legal drama crossed with a domestic drama it was during the pilot. It’s now a series that, like The Wire, tells the story of the life and death of an American city, examines the ways systems corrupt and destroy people, and tosses dozens of compelling characters from all walks of life into the storytelling mixture.
Granted, The Good Wife is not as obviously “great” a series as The Wire. It falters in portraying the plight of the lower classes and the root causes of crime, and it doesn’t have that earlier series’ sense of gritty reality. Everything here is slightly glossier than it would be in real life, even if the surface is wildly entertaining and “feels” right. (Look no further than the show’s dive into the world of Chicago politics this season, a storyline that made all the right moves on paper but featured sets and cinematography far shinier than an actual campaign for District Attorney in Chicago might believably have.) The Good Wife is very much the network answer to The Wire, a show that isn’t quite as complex as that earlier work and includes soapy complications, sometimes because it seems as though it has to.
It’s also capable of incredibly strange storytelling decisions, often because it simply needs to fill 23 episodes of television per season. While that expansiveness allows the show the freedom to spend an episode following the prosecutorial team working against the firm of titular wife Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), it also means that the show sometimes casts about too widely for cases of the week, desperately grabbing at whatever headlines it can find. The second season included an episode about Hugo Chavez where Chavez was played by a man wandering around with his face always off-camera and bellowing in a South American accent, and an episode about the controversy around the factualness of The Social Network that nonetheless took place in a world where The Social Network still existed (thus absolving the show from having to say its version of Aaron Sorkin was supposed to be the real thing). The cases of the week can also be clumsily deployed to underline exactly what the main characters are thinking and feeling, as in last week’s episode, where Sarah Silverman, as the proprietor of an Ashley Madison-like website hooking up married adults who wanted to have affairs, talked with Alicia, who had just left her husband for once and for all (for now), about how monogamy isn’t a natural condition for humanity.
But if the show isn’t quite as epic as The Wire and sometimes loses that series’ subtlety on the case-by-case level, so what? To watch the entirety of the second season is to see a show that’s grown confident in its audience and in the types of stories it can tell. The Good Wife’s Chicago may not be quite as gritty as the real thing, but the series has steadily built itself up from its initial twin bases of the Florrick household and the Lockhart-Gardner law firm where Alicia went to work after her husband, Peter, went to jail briefly for soliciting prostitutes. Peter Florrick’s return to politics in an attempt to restore his good name easily incorporated that aspect of the city into the series and introduced the show’s best character, Alan Cumming’s wily political operative Eli Gold. And as the series follows the characters out from the workplace and their homes, more and more elements of the fictional Chicago landscape are incorporated, from the city’s religious backdrop to its media, both print and electronic.
The series also feels impeccably researched and lived-in, just as The Wire did. The characters from all of these different walks of life have distinct voices and speak in their own cadences, allowing the show to go from somber, emotional moments to scenes that are wildly funny in the space of a few moments. The show understands both these characters and the world they live in, which has the look and feel of our world, more or less. The Good Wife may be the only show on the air to truly understand the way the Internet has spread tendrils into every facet of American life, the way blogs influence political races, the way that YouTube has become as important force in the national dialogue as network TV or newspapers. It may be the only show that’s featured a plotline heavily inspired by those Taiwanese animations of important news events, and the show didn’t just get the reference right; it actually created a stupid animation of its own to dramatize what the characters were up to.
The show is also endlessly visually inventive. It’s a series that keeps coming up with new ways to do twists on scenes you’ve seen millions of times before. Need to show that Peter and Alicia are reconnecting? Have him press her against the wall and then lower out of frame in a steamy bathroom as NPR plays on the radio. Need to have a scene where Alicia discusses a case while she’s out of the office? Have her be way out of the office—in the middle of nowhere—forced to stand on top of a car and try to hold on to a limited cell-phone signal. Need to have the big mean boss call in to tell his subordinates what to do next? Have his voice issue from out of a toy lion. The Good Wife knows that viewers have seen much of this stuff before, so it’s always looking for ways to either surprise them with new ways of looking at old scenes or cut out the stuff they know will happen already. A surprising edit in a recent episode jumped abruptly from Michael J. Fox’s gleefully opportunistic Louis Canning approaching Alicia to say his driver had… cutting off in midsentence to drop us into a car where Alicia was driving him home. “You already know where we’re going with this,” the show seemed to say. “Let’s just get there already.”
But for all of these similarities between The Good Wife and The Wire, the strongest one may be the simplest: On both series, no one is a good guy, and no one is a bad guy. Everybody does good things, and everybody does bad things, and when you step back to look at a situation from someone else’s perspective, your entire opinion of what happened may change. The Good Wife may not encompass as broad a swath of humanity as The Wire did, but as Lockhart-Gardner involves itself more and more in the Chicago setting of the show, we get to see almost as much of the city as we got to see of Baltimore on the earlier series. And over the course of the second season, the series has revealed that every character, no matter how small, has his or her own set of hopes, beliefs, and desires, and they’ll often do whatever they can to pursue those goals. Whether that character is the central character of the whole show, the mysterious assistant with a hidden past, or a simple prison guard who’s in one scene in one episode, these are all people trapped in a legal and political system that has failed them or cornered by other people who have hurt them, trying to make the best of the situation at hand.
The Good Wife may not seem like the logical successor to The Wire on the surface, but it’s revealed itself to be a series nearly as complex, humane, and deep as that earlier show, and all in reduced network running-times with heightened restrictions on content. In a world where it seems like the broadcast networks have completely ceded smart, adult storytelling in dramas to cable, The Good Wife makes the case that it needn’t be this way by asking the same simple question The Wire did every week: Is it even possible to be good in a world so decayed?