Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
Roughly five minutes into “Hitting The Fan,” Will Gardner (Josh Charles), a managing partner at a prestigious and lucrative law firm in Chicago, storms into another partner’s office and shoves everything off her desk—computer, phone, paperwork, framed pictures of her family. The other partner is Alicia Florrick, played by Julianna Margulies. She is an upright, regal character, icy compared to Gardner’s ire. Both are in a glossy, upscale suite of offices—the ones with the glass walls, that don’t hide other employees so much as put them on display.
On any other show—a splashy crime procedural, or even a sitcom with a tendency for slapstick—the sudden burst of action to clear the desk, the clatter of Alicia’s things falling to the floor, and the emotional content of the scene contained in a few short seconds would not seem out of place, or even out of the ordinary. Television prides itself on its ability to deliver the shocking and the extreme. A kids’ game show has more violence in it than The Good Wife.
But that scene is startling, incredibly startling, for fans of the show. It’s not just that the action breaks an invisible code of silence and decorum that governs the office, it’s that this is a scene five years in the making. Will and Alicia have been friends, co-workers, and lovers. This is the moment in which they become rivals.
The Good Wife is one of the most restrained shows on television, but it’s never boring. If anything, it’s characteristically slow pacing distinguishes it as a network procedural drama that actually works—it accomplishes everything that a good procedural tries to do, and it does it over and over again, 22 episodes a season. Showrunners Michelle and Robert King are deliberate with each episode of this show, creating a drama that is deep into its fifth season, but still has the verve and enthusiasm of a newcomer. That success is due to the patience and care that each episode shows for its characters. The Good Wife will often set the beginning of a new episode mere seconds after the conclusion of the last—cliffhangers are often followed up with a long pause, as the new event’s significance resonates with each character. And lately, in some of the show’s most crucial moments, the directors have filmed the characters head-on—to force the viewer to inhabit the literal point-of-view of the cast.
In its deliberate slowness—a choice that can make the show impenetrable for new viewers—The Good Wife gives itself time to develop each character’s psychology, without unnecessary leaning on flashbacks. The show exists almost exclusively in the present tense, with a rigor that avoids neither one character’s salary negotiations nor another’s late-night fling with an old flame. That, coupled with excellent casting, means that the characters in The Good Wife are laid bare to the audience in a way few other television shows have the patience for. Alicia has been struggling with her husband’s scandalous political career ever since the show began, negotiating a failing marriage and two children, while re-establishing her own professional identity. Not much has changed for her, but the conflicts have deepened and mellowed. Her life is more about moments of reckoning than narrative arcs, which reflects the drama of real life more than most television screenplays do. That’s all the more astounding given that The Good Wife airs on CBS, a network without much of a reputation for the artistic, innovative productions that get attention on HBO and AMC. The Kings are working within their boundaries to do astonishing work.
This attention to character makes it all the more honest and revealing about the workplace—the setting that dominates every other program on television, whether it’s an office comedy, a medical procedural, or another cop show. American TV likes to produce shows about work, possibly because so many Americans spend most of their time there, and The Good Wife is the best ongoing series about that subject. Its measured lens allows it to get into the slowly evolving office politics of the show’s primary law firm, Lockhart/Gardner. Regular viewers have watched as the firm has confronted bankruptcy and buyout, seeing Lockhart/Gardner through fat years and lean ones. Characters have angled for promotions, gotten fired, worked connections to poach clients, and logged many billable hours late at night while drinking a glass of wine. The Good Wife wants to see what work means to the people who are working. It wants to explore how and why people invest in certain cases, clients, or professional roles, in the midst of the rest of their lives—marriage, kids, visiting parents.
This focus on the mundane makes the dramatic pop out when it does occur. This season, Alicia and co-worker Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) broke away to form a rival firm, and as boring as the reality of a business decision could be on paper, for The Good Wife, it’s fraught with emotional fallout. (See: Will clearing Alicia’s desk.) When the show decides to go all-in—as it has at least twice a season—the result is crackling tension. The viewer isn’t shown what’s happening—in their understanding of the characters, they can anticipate what’s going to happen. Of course Will will be furious when he finds out. Of course David Lee (Zach Grenier) is going to be nasty. Of course Alicia is going to burst into tears.
The Good Wife’s approach is also especially captivating for its romantic subplots. Because of authenticity that comes from exploring certain key characters in the moment, sexual tension doesn’t feel contrived or abandoned, but rather a constant—sometimes running in the background, and sometimes at the center of attention. The most successful plotlines feel lived-in already. And considering that for these high-powered lawyers, their romantic plotlines and professional plotlines often overlap, that fabric of complex, interlocking relationships at the firm is what holds The Good Wife together. Unsurprisingly, the show is also one of the few in which clients from past cases return for more casework, while judges and rival lawyers similarly recur. This is a world with a knowable social network.
The Good Wife is the best procedural on television—one that knows that true drama arises from character, not plot; one that knows how to use the case of the week to inject energy into its characters without ever letting them stray from the themes and issues they are grappling with. It richly rewards patience, and five seasons in, it seems likely that it will continue to be captivating for five more seasons.