The Good Wife is one of those shows that I often let sit in my DVR for a week or so, because, my brain tells me, it’s doesn’t matter how much CBS tries to sex up a lawyer show by making it about a Silda Spitzer-type trying to make it in the world, it’s still a damn CBS lawyer show and that means it’s boring and it’s for old people, right?
And yet every time I finally cue it up, The Good Wife, for all its trappings as a legal procedural show, startles me. Its characters aren’t just walking voice boxes for the writers to air opinions through, they’re fun personalities but with enough of a pinch of reality to keep this from being another Boston Legal. The plots are often ripped from the headlines but it never feels too lazy. The guest casting is always phenomenal, not showy – every week, it’s three or four people that’ll make you say, “hey, it’s that guy!”
CBS legal procedural that it is, The Good Wife has become must-see TV. When it premiered, I tuned in only because I wanted to see how the show would mine the trope of the steadfast, but nauseous-looking wife standing next to her dirty ol’ politician of a husband. Watching the pilot, I wasn’t even half-interested in the actual case Alicia Florrick was prosecuting, I wanted to know about the sexy scandal with her husband, Mr. Big.
Thirteen episodes in, the stuff with Peter Florrick is chugging along nicely, but it’s the cases that make The Good Wife such good TV. It’s been a while since there’s been such a solid lawyer show on TV. Think of what the networks have barfed out over the last few years: Justice. Conviction. The Lyon’s Den. Shark (I kinda liked that one, just for James Woods). Canterbury’s Law, starring Julianna Margulies as the complete opposite of Alicia Florrick, a hammy show-off whose primary tool in court were her stupendous legs.
The Good Wife isn’t afraid to be hammy when it needs to be, but the terrific ensemble keeps things grounded, so you rarely feel like you’re being hit over the head with a plot point, or a character moment, or a political aside. Margulies was a little too icy in the first few episodes, but she’s relaxed as her character has gotten less tense about the whole “my husband banged whores and it was all over the news” thing. Mostly leaving the humor to her cast-mates, she’s a reliably level-headed moral and emotional center for the show, someone we can rely on whenever any other character’s motivations seem untrustworthy (which happens, like, all the time).
Josh Charles and Christine Baranski, the firm’s two prominent partners, are realistic bigshots: they don’t bloviate and are bereft of character tics, and best of all, Baranski doesn’t have to play Diane Lockhart as a bitch. When I saw the pilot, I figured she’d be the show’s ice queen, shooting Alicia down from her moral high ground because a woman in power is always ruthless and amoral, right? Instead, Lockhart is a cunning, but respectful, powerhouse of a lawyer who sticks to her principles more often than anyone else on this show. A recent episode where she had to weigh the political sacrifices necessary to become a Chicago judge was a great showcase for that side of her – although this week’s sojourn into gun control was a little too pat.
Charles is just as good as Will Gardner, Alicia’s vaguely-slimy but still-charming pal from law school. It’d be impossible for us to believe that such a high-powered lawyer would have gotten there by being a totally decent guy, so Charles doesn’t bother to try and convince us of that. Gardner’s aware he works for nasty corporations and possibly-evil rich dudes a lot of the time, and he’s made his peace with it. A little less interesting is his ongoing power struggle with Lockhart over the direction of the firm, but he and Baranski keep their banter nice and light even when the dialogue gets too clunky.
I’m rambling, but I’ll just add that Archie Panjabi’s Kalinda is another example of The Good Wife taking what sounds like a wincingly obvious character (the ball-breakin’ chick PI) and making her a believable human being. Kalinda seems coolly dispassionate and Panjabi’s line-readings can be almost robotic, but she’s a skilled enough actress to invest some warmth behind them. I am, however, getting a little tired of how close Kalinda plays her cards to her chest (one example: if she is gay, as the show is hinting, why would she care if people knew about it?).
Moving onto actual plot: the last two episodes, one featuring an Glenn Beck-alike on trial and another regarding the mysterious overdose of a star high school quarterback, were both great examples of the fun, compelling twisty mystery/legal plots this show excels at. I was worried that for the week I’m covering it, the central potboiler wouldn’t be as fun, but “Bad,” while a lot campier than The Good Wife often is, was a lot of fun.
I knew it would be once Dylan Baker walked in as a suspected psycho wife-killer who got off in the criminal case but was fighting civil charges, a la OJ. This dude was a weird cross of Claus von Bulow with Hannibal Lecter, and Baker just ran wild with it, sipping out of a flagon in an apartment adorned with manga posters of chicks being strangled while simpering about “breath-play” and his reaction to his wife’s death: “Oh no, now I'll need a fourth for bridge.”
They made Baker such an obvious deviant that it felt equally obvious he’d turn out to be a big showboat, but not the killer, and that was how it turned out – but The Good Wife likes to keep things cynical, and threw in a moment of doubt at the end just to keep ya guessing. That happens a lot on this show; cases might go the way the audience wants them to, but often through some weird contrivance, rather than with a legal victory. The system seems to fail as much as it succeeds, even with all the awesome judges we’ve met so far, who could fill an Emmy ballot for Best Guest Acting: Peter Riegert, David Paymer, Denis O’Hare, Joanna Gleason, and this week the wonderful Peter Gerety, aka Judge Phelan from The Wire.
Things are just as cynical when it comes to Chris Noth as Peter Florrick, who totally admits to banging a prostitute dozens of times, just can’t stand for his record as a State’s Attorney being besmirched. His showdowns with his nemesis, incumbent SA Glenn Childs (Titus Welliver, even more mysterious and evil than the Man in Black from Lost) are gripping power plays. The ongoing possible conspiracy theory plot about his being set up is a little more tiresome – I keep expecting Noth to shout that he’s a patsy, a la George Bluth Sr. Noth has been playing Peter with the appropriate level of skeeviness, and while I want him to stick around, I don’t want his character neutered at the same time.
So, speak up, AV clubbers. Are you fellow Good Wifers, or am I overestimating this show’s appeal? Can this article possibly survive being published on the same day as the beginning of Lost’s final season?