The Good Wife's secret weapon last year was the element of surprise. I'm sure 95% of the audience tuning in was just interested to see what a show about a politician's wife living through a sex scandal would be like. Then it turned out to be the freshest take on a network legal drama in years. It looked like a Julianna Margulies vehicle, but the entire cast turned out to be stellar. So the question is, how surprising can the show be this year?
From the first episode of season two, "Taking Control," it looks like things will be shaken up a little, but the show's customary mix of ripped-from-the-headlines legal cases, Chicago political intrigue and family drama remains intact. Alicia Florrick (Margulies), now secure at corporate law firm Gardner & Lockhart, is navigating the dueling affections of her cheating husband Peter (Chris Noth), now released from prison, and her old college flame Will Gardner (Josh Charles), now her boss. At the same time, the firm is merging with a D.C. practice headed by Derrick Bond (new character Michael Ealy) and Peter is running for office with the guidance of cutthroat political operative Eli Gold (Alan Cumming, now a regular).
Still, even with upheaval at the law firm and the departure of the cutely smarmy Cary (Matt Czuchry), who has become a prosecutor under the watch of the sinister Glenn Childs (the fantastic Titus Welliver), the format of the show is largely the same. "Taking Control" features a case modeled on Wikileaks' recent divulging of secrets about the war on terror, although things are kept interesting because the defendant insists on representing himself. Without giving too much away, the plot is also a fine example of what keeps The Good Wife separate from the many legal dramas that have aired before: a big, healthy dose of cynicism.
Alicia doesn't work at some do-gooder fight-for-the-little guy firm, but instead a big, scary, corporate monster of a place, and The Good Wife doesn't shy away from presenting the ups and downs of that. On the one hand, you've got unlimited resources, especially sinuous investigator Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi, who collected an Emmy for her performance this year) but on the other, you're often representing rich bastards who may well have committed the crimes you're defending them against. The firm's pro bono work keeps things from settling into a pattern every week, but The Good Wife has to be applauded for not shying away from showing that which most legal shows never did: clients are often guilty and you have to represent them anyway; the good guys don't always win, and if they do, sometimes it's not a clean win, but a deal cut under the table or through spurious legal maneuvering.
The political aspect of the show, originally the reason I tuned in, was often a distraction last year despite the fine work of Noth and Cumming. A somewhat nebulous conspiracy around Peter and the people who may or may not have framed him became too vague to really follow clearly and never got resolved -- Peter was released from prison on appeal (he definitely slept with a prostitute, he just didn't pay her for the sex) but there was no follow-through on further incriminating evidence of him smoking crack (found to be faked by his enterprising kids).
Welliver's creepy, robotic performance as Peter's rival has been a lot of fun to watch but his motives remain difficult to judge: at best, he's quasi-villainous. I've never been too inclined to root for Peter because the show never made much effort to present him as a hero, just a charismatic politician with as many friends as enemies. Whether season two will turn his election campaign against Childs into a good-versus-evil battle remains to be seen, but I think I'd prefer it to stay away from such easy characterization and humanize Childs somewhat. Last season, Alicia was repeatedly reminded that her husband, while appealing, had some major skeletons in his closet; her unease at having to be by his side during the campaign is wonderfully, and subtly, played by Margulies. Eli Gold's constant negotiations and machinations to keep her there give the show another quasi-villain, although Cumming is far too enjoyable onscreen to really hate at all.
The final aspect of The Good Wife that made it such a powerhouse last year ratings-wise and awards-wise (although, in terms of ratings, following NCIS and NCIS: LA certainly helped it find its footing) was the multitude of intriguing romantic pairings it found between its cast members. Alicia is caught between her husband and Will, which got more and more interesting over the year as we realized how much the two men had in common, in terms of their willingness to undercut any idealism to get what they want. Watching them try and out-cool each other every time they were in a room together was something to see. But outside of this triangle, there was the deepening mystery of Kalinda's sexuality and Cary nursing a rather adorable crush on her. Whether Kalinda is gay, bi or just extremely good at getting what she wants remains a mystery, but she has a new love interest in season 2's premiere, a rival investigator played by Friday Night Lights' Scott Porter.
As an episode, "Taking Control" is almost jarringly fast-paced, jumping into the new setup at Lockhart & Gardner and Peter's campaign while also focusing on the Wikileaks case. There's a lot going on and a couple characters, most notably the wonderful Christine Baranski as senior partner Diane Lockhart, get short shrift, but the show's writers seem to have a good grasp on where things are going and set the table for us well. There's minimal melodrama and lots of icy stares and backroom deals; in other words, it's the show I grew to love last year.