The Good Wife debuts at 10 p.m. EDT tonight on CBS.
In an otherwise deeply disappointing fall season for network-based scripted drama, The Good Wife is one of exactly two drama pilots that made me sit up and say, “OK, that’s something I like.” The other, FlashForward, is so maddeningly inconsistent that I’m half-convinced everyone involved was just making up the pilot as they went along in some sort of Robert Altman-esque approach to making Lost, but the moments that hit strike so hard that I’ll keep coming back. In contrast, The Good Wife wins out in a much quieter fashion, by taking two parts of the staid CBS procedural format, adding one part workplace drama and then another part intimate character study. It’s probably the best network drama of the fall, remarkable for a show that occasionally seems to have wandered in from 1992.
The Good Wife has a hell of a good nugget for its premise. What if one of those wives you see standing in the background of press conferences where a prominent politician (Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, Jim McGreevy, take your pick) apologizes for sexual misconduct was forced to go back to work when her husband gets tossed in the clink? This being CBS, of course, our heroine was going to go work at a police station, a hospital or a law firm, but this being a show with a modicum of originality in its execution, everyone involved has decided to send her to work at a law firm, which hasn’t been the setting for a successful CBS drama in quite some time now. (While CBS has the strongest sense of self of any of the major broadcast networks, its sheer same-iness gets numbing, even on the shows that are well done.) Another thing The Good Wife has going for it is Julianna Margulies in the lead role of Alicia, having finally found a role that lives up to the skills she displayed in the early days of ER. She bounces from compassion to helplessness to barely suppressed anger so readily and easily here that it makes you wonder to think she was ever cast in things like Ghost Ship.
The series surrounds Margulies with a number of capable actors as well, rather than taking the typical CBS approach of loading up a series with generic young faces that can be bought for a song. Josh Charles plays her boss at the law firm where she gets a job, while Christine Baranski turns up as Alicia’s mentor at the firm, playing all of the notes of the “Christine Baranski role” perfectly. Chris Noth ably handles all of the shades of Alicia’s imprisoned husband, still dancing on both sides of the ethical line, while an able cast of familiar faces from numerous guest roles fills out the ensemble. The series even drops in David Paymer and Titus Welliver in important recurring parts and gives Paymer occasion to play around with every inch of the irascible judge type.
If The Good Wife were just about a law firm that takes on impossible cases and sometimes wins them while sometimes losing them in a poignant fashion that causes the characters to Really Think About What’s Happened, it would still feel fairly original in a network television landscape that hasn’t had a success with the lawyer show format since The Practice. (Like it or not, Boston Legal was never a major success, nor was it ever a conventional lawyer show, choosing instead to embrace every possible inch of being a David E. Kelley production.) But The Good Wife goes two steps further than that. While the procedural elements of the show – involving Alicia working to exonerate a woman accused of killing her ex-husband – are well-done if a little predictable (if you can’t guess the killer straight off, then you have never seen a crime show), the series adds in a healthy dose of workplace drama and a sense of character study.
Saying that a show adds a sense of “workplace drama” probably doesn’t sound too impressive on a television landscape where 95% of shows are set in or around workplaces, but I mean this in a very specific sense. The procedural series is almost solely concerned with the case of the week and how the regular characters come to solve it (or, in the case of House, cure it). There may be some spartan character interplay, but the true purpose of the series is to create a perpetual case-solving machine, so that you never need see every episode or even see the episodes in the correct order to know what’s going on. CBS has built its network brand on this sort of storytelling, and anything that deviates from it tends to get canceled. Even the examples of these kinds of shows that did a better job at delving into the regular characters’ lives – like Without a Trace – always reverted back to the procedural baseline at the end of the day.
The workplace drama is slightly different (and not to be confused with the workplace soap – see Grey’s Anatomy). Here, the focus of the series is less on the cases being solved and more on the people solving them. Though the cases are important and get more of the focus than they might on a workplace soap, the series is also interested in the emotions and passions of the people who work at the series’ setting. It might examine how two characters very carefully come together into a relationship or it might tease out the office politics surrounding the characters. Similarly, it might devote several episodes to more serialized storytelling, to showing the cast coming together to work on one case that dominates their time. These sorts of shows dominated the drama landscape in the ‘80s and ‘90s, starting with Hill Street Blues, but the last prominent network example, ER, left the airwaves just this year. The Good Wife isn’t as pure a workplace drama as ER was, but it certainly plants the seeds for going more in that direction if it wants to. We get the sense that some of the characters are in competition for a coveted position, and we see Baranski’s character pull back from mentoring Alicia at a crucial moment. Charles’ character is clearly still nursing a thing for Alicia, and Alicia slowly builds relationships with some of the people at the firm in an organic and realistic fashion. You’ve seen all of this before, but at a time when shows tend to embrace all serialized storytelling or all procedural storytelling (and especially on a network that has come down firmly on one side of that line), it’s a bit jarring to see The Good Wife chart a course straight down the middle.
The series also wants to be a closely monitored character study of Alicia as she goes through this truly rough time in her life. She’s dealing with her mother-in-law (the great Mary Beth Peil) moving in to take care of the kids and trying to find a way to forgive her husband. She’s attempting to figure out just why she abandoned a promising law career to support a man who ultimately betrayed her. And she’s trying to step out from under his shadow in a world where his shadow is very large indeed. This isn’t the kind of character study you might see on cable, but within the confines of this genre, it’s very well-handled.
The Good Wife is far from perfect. Some of the exposition is handled in a clunky fashion (at one point, Paymer’s judge just spouts off a bunch of it for no good reason), and the show has so many moving parts that there’s always the fear that risk-averse CBS will ask the producers to calm some of them down. There’s also the fact that if you want something wildly original or something with heavily serialized storytelling, this isn’t going to be it. But The Good Wife impresses with its ability to be quiet, to show Alicia thinking, figuring out both the case she’s working on and the woman she wants to be. It’s very much the kind of show your mom is going to want to watch, but when you call her up and she’s watching it, you won’t have to cringe at her bad taste.
- Archie Panjabi, who plays Alicia’s new best friend at the firm, is not an actress I’m familiar with, but she takes some things that could be tawdry and overdone and makes them feel weirdly fresh. She’s probably one to keep an eye on.
- This is the first time my favorite drama pilot is on CBS in ages and ages. At first, I was going to be pleased that this meant it had a better shot at lasting several seasons than my typical picks, but then I realized that CBS has never figured out how to program the Tuesdays at 10 p.m. timeslot, so this one might be gone before we know it.
- We’re not adding this show for regular coverage, since it seems unlikely any of you would clamor for it, but I’ll be keeping an eye on it as the season progresses, and if it turns out to be an essential, I’ll let you all know.