Network’s Darling: On “The Good Wife”




ON March 12, 2008, Eliot Spitzer, who rose to power as an aggressive enforcer of ethics, announced in a press conference that he would resign from his post as governor of New York amid revelations that he slept with prostitutes. The press conference, which lasted 140 seconds and took place at his Midtown Manhattan office, became part of the iconography of scandal. But we were less interested in the “Luv Gov” than we were in his wife, Silda Wall Spitzer. She stood beside him, wearing a black suit and a brightly colored Hermès scarf; her skin dewy, her shoulder-length honey-brown hair perfectly styled, and her eyes tired, mostly expressionless, except when she occasionally looked up. How sad, we thought. How pathetic. Into Silda, standing by her man, we poured our pity for every Good Wife who’s acted out Tammy Wynette’s lyrics. Silda became tabloid fodder. Was she good in bed? (Beside the point.) Would she file for divorce? (She did.) What was she thinking up there?

Robert and Michelle King, married writing partners who created the short-lived series In Justice, a legal procedural that ran for 13 episodes in 2006, were interested in the last question. Silda inspired The Good Wife, which premiered five years ago, on September 22, 2009. In the opening shot of the pilot, Alicia Florrick, played by Julianna Margulies of ER fame, walks down a hallway, hand in hand with her husband Peter (Chris Noth), to a press conference, where he announces he’s resigned from his post as state’s attorney of Cook County amid revelations that he slept with prostitutes. Ripped right from the headlines.

The first two minutes reenact the Spitzer press conference (except it’s in Chicago, and Margulies wears a dark blue suit and her helmet of black hair is pulled back with a clip). But wait. The press conference concludes. They leave. Peter asks Alicia if she’s all right and, two minutes and 28 seconds into the episode, she slaps her shmuck across the face.

We then fast-forward six months and find Alicia working as a junior associate at the law firm Stern, Lockhart & Gardner. That’s where the show really begins. Alicia, in her 40s, the wife of a disgraced (and imprisoned) politician, the mother of two teenagers, opting back into the workplace. For five seasons, this petite show on CBS, which averages about 12 million viewers an episode, has lured in its loyal fan base every Sunday night at 9:00 p.m. EST. The Kings have seduced them with their so-called “hybrid” form: they claim the show is 50 percent drama, following Alicia transforming herself into a working woman, parenting two teenagers as a somewhat-single mom, paying bills, and sparring with her mother-in-law (Mary Beth Peil); and 50 percent legal procedural, with the classic “case of the week” structure and office chaos.

Some episodes are distinctly 50-50 (half office, half home), but the show is at its best when drama and procedural are intertwined. When Alicia, for example, must rely on the social-media savvy of her teenagers to win a case. When Alicia begins sleeping with her boss Will Gardner (Josh Charles) and then breaks it off to sort of stay with Peter, who, upon release from prison, is reelected state’s attorney and then becomes governor of Illinois. (Only in Chicago.)

The show peaked last season, its fifth, when Alicia, who became an equity partner at the revamped Lockhart/Gardner (“LG”), left the firm with colleague Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) to start Florrick/Agos. All hell broke loose. It was a professional betrayal — they poached clients — but for Will, it was also a personal betrayal. The war of the firms is brilliantly played out in an episode in which Alicia and Will must each represent one-half of a couple accused of smuggling drugs. The courtroom becomes entangled in legal technicalities when the prosecution insists on two separate jury pools. In one episode, drama turns into screwball comedy.

The Good Wife has been overlooked — most notably by the Television Academy. Each time it’s been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series, it’s lost to a cable show. The ultimate snub came in July, when the 66th Primetime Emmy nominees were announced, and The Good Wife was left out of the mix. This year’s nominees were Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Mad Men, True Detective, and Breaking Bad, which took home the statuette. (Margulies won for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.) The Good Wife should be placed in the pantheon of outstanding television programming. For five seasons it has challenged the assumption that cable shows, premium cable shows, and shows streaming on Netflix are better, smarter, more enriching, more imaginative, more stimulating, and more thought provoking than shows on network television.

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A seemingly throwaway scene at the start of an episode titled “Parallel Construction, Bitches” says a lot about the series. The episode, in season five, opens with scenes from a fictional AMC show, which is being watched, we soon realize, by Alicia and her daughter Grace. There’s a voiceover — “Previously on AMC’s Darkness at Noon” —followed by a recap. The show seems to be a twist on the police procedural: sirens blare, a handcuffed perp is thrown onto the hood of a police car, someone gets stabbed, someone is thrown against a chain-link fence, the New York City skyline is shown in grainy, sinister shots, someone is getting sexually assaulted, someone is found dead in an alley by a crying cop. It’s ridiculous. It’s over the top. It’s cable. We cut to a confused Alicia sitting on her couch, watching this madness, a glass of red wine in her hand.

“What’s going on?” she asks Grace, as more violent images appear on their screen.

“He shot the other guy. Now they’re blaming the bald guy. Now she’s in trouble.”

Alicia shakes her head, completely bewildered.

At first, it seems like The Good Wife is poking fun at cable’s audacity (and its ability to be more audacious than network television), but there’s another layer. Following Grace’s explanation, there’s a knock on the Florrick door. It’s a man named Charles Lester (Wally Shawn) for Alicia. When Alicia sees Lester, her wine-flushed face is drained of all color. (The show’s makeup artists and stylists are truly first-rate.) Alicia’s response to Lester seems like an overreaction because, well, it’s Wally Shawn, and he’s not that scary. But we soon learn Lester is the family attorney and spokesperson for Lemond Bishop, a notorious drug kingpin — and one of Alicia’s top clients — who has been arrested on drug-related charges. He is dangerous, and so is Lester.

What unfolds in the episode is simply absurd: through a scheme involving pancake batter (supposed to look like cocaine), Bishop, Lester, and Alicia set up the cops trailing Bishop and learn that someone is tapping Alicia’s work phone. They assume it’s the DEA, but they’re wrong: it’s the NSA, and they’re actually spying on Governor Florrick. Arrests, kingpins, cocaine, pancake batter, the DEA, the NSA, the governor’s office — all wrapped in one storyline. The episode’s AMC cold open prepares the audience for the ensuing plotline. Yes, The Good Wife takes a jab at cable, but it’s also saying, “We can be outrageous too … but at least we’re aware of it.”

The Good Wife finds and illuminates “meta” moments; the show even gives CBS space to be self-referential. In the first season, Alicia discovers that an audio recording of Peter and a prostitute is available online. The link is cbsnews.com. At its most playful, the show blurs the line between reality and fiction. It loves casting guest stars who play their real-life selves. Donna Brazile, the Democratic National Committee’s vice chairwoman, has appeared on the show three times. (She also appeared in the first season of House of Cards.) This season, Peter Bogdanovich played the baby-daddy of one of Peter’s staffers. The joke: For a few minutes we’re led to believe that Alicia’s Peter has fathered the baby. Surprise! It’s Bogdanovich.

Robert and Michelle King use the “procedural” part of the show to address current issues. LG has argued cases involving drone warfare, Twitter, Syrian protesters, Bitcoin, women’s rights (a surrogate refuses to abort a fetus with serious birth defects at the request of the biological parents), Occupy Wall Street, NSA surveillance, and so on. Unlike HBO’s The Newsroom, the Kings’ show deals with events as they unfold in the news — not a year later. Since there are roughly 26 episodes in a season, compared to The Newsroom’s 10, there’s a quicker turnaround in terms of writing and production. I didn’t really understand what Bitcoin was until I watched the episode “Bitcoin for Dummies” in season three. (I’m still a little confused.)

Of course, the show is unrealistic in many ways. LG and Florrick/Agos handle every kind of case — criminal and civil — under the sun. Every case seems to go to trial. Many cases are resolved with a “guilty” or “not guilty” verdict by the end of an episode. The procedural part of the show moves at an improbably fast pace — but it has to. Who would watch a show about a case that dragged on for months?

If the procedural is a sprint, the drama is a marathon. It takes five seasons for Alicia to move up and then move on (from LG, from Will, and even from Peter). Each season is a well-choreographed dance: speeding up when it needs to, slowing down when it has to.

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“Will Gardner died last Sunday,” wrote Delia Ephron in a New York Times op-ed on March 25, two days after the character was gunned down in a courtroom in the episode “Dramatics, Your Honor.” “I was so upset I couldn’t sleep, took half a Valium at 3 a.m., overslept, took the wrong subway the next morning and ended up in Herald Square.”

Ephron is half-kidding. Will Gardner’s death, arguably the most shocking television fatality in recent history, triggered visceral reactions from the show’s fan(atic)s. Eliminating Will, a central character in both the drama and procedural parts of the series, was risky. So risky, the Kings felt compelled to issue a letter to their fans the morning after the shooting. Here is the first part of that letter, addressed to “Loyal Good Wife Fans”:

We, like you, mourn the loss of Will Gardner. And while Will is gone, our beloved Josh Charles is very much alive and remains an integral part of our family. [As if we have to be reminded that Josh Charles is an actor playing a character.]

The Good Wife, at its heart, is the “Education of Alicia Florrick.” To us, there always was a tragedy at the center of Will and Alicia’s relationship: the tragedy of bad timing. And when faced with the gut punch of Josh’s decision, made over a year ago, to move on to other creative endeavors, we had a major choice to make. [In other words, it’s not our fault.]

The “Education of Alicia Florrick” is a nod to Henry Adams, who, in the third person, wrote his eponymous Education (1907), exploring, among other things, a continual struggle to come to terms with the 20th century — a world so different from his youth. Alicia’s struggle is a quest for control and identity in the dense, dicey politics of the office — a completely new world — and in the home. But in season four, the show seemed to lose sight of that personal struggle as it teetered into the realm of “love triangle” when Alicia was deciding whether to continue her on-again, off-again fling with Will, or save her troubled marriage. The death of Will — the culmination of a season of explosions (namely, Alicia and Cary’s acrimonious split from LG) — liberates Alicia from a romance-driven storyline and allows her to remain a fully realized character.

Alicia had to break away from Will — or have Will taken from her — just like she had to break away from LG. Independence is her struggle, why she has traveled so far, what she has come to declare: I can stand on my own.

Of course, she never really stands on her own. Along the way, she’s been helped by men — Will and Peter. In the most important episode of season five, “A Few Words,” which addresses this issue head-on, Alicia must deliver the keynote address at an American Bar Association conference. She’s been asked to speak about her rise from good wife to great attorney. In flashbacks, we see how essential Will was in her career. Post-Florrickgate, Alicia was toxic. No one, Diane Lockhart included, wanted to have anything to do with her. Will gave her a lifeline (a job), and at the end of that episode, when Alicia reflects on the arc of her career, she offers her savior/mentor/lover/adversary an olive branch, and they reconcile, a little bit, before his murder.

Peter, though a liability in the first season, is part of the reason Alicia rises so quickly at LG. It’s good business to employ the wife of the state’s attorney. Very good business to make the governor’s wife an equity partner. (Let’s give Alicia her due: she’s shown working harder than any other character.) When First Lady Florrick decides to start her own firm, she relies on Peter’s connections and influence to lasso clients. She’s never really made it on her own. She’s never really been independent. But she does learn how to navigate the politics of her new world and wield as much power as a woman in that world can.

The Education of Alicia Florrick is an education in pragmatism. Alicia moves from moral absolutes — in the first season, the idea that LG would represent a drug lord appalls her — to gray zones of ethical compromise. She wastes no time poaching Bishop from her former employer, for example. Alicia’s not purged of all of her goodness, but by season five, she’s no longer good. She flirts with a judge to get a favorable ruling and looks the other way when Peter uses his legislative power to blackmail a client to move to her firm. Some might call it a slow slide to corruption. But I think the Kings are giving us a lesson in power and empowerment — with a major caveat: Alicia’s husband.

In the episode following Will’s death, Alicia and Peter argue about her mourning Will. Peter is jealous that Alicia’s so distraught, and in the kitchen of Alicia’s apartment, they decide on a “Clinton” marriage (or an “Underwood” marriage): Peter will benefit from being married to “Saint Alicia,” ensuring his restored image remains restored, and Alicia will reap the professional rewards of being the governor’s wife. The price she pays for power is being tied to a man.

That’s not the case with Diane Lockhart. Though Alicia carries the show, Diane is its heart — progressive, flawed, but especially principled. She axes an obnoxious client who demands a meeting with her on the day of Will’s death. After the client disrespects Will, Diane blacklists him, shutting him out of every top Chicago law firm. Realistic? Not really. Tremendously satisfying? Yes. Diane, in her early 60s, is childless and only recently married (to a gun-toting conservative), and has been the firm’s managing partner for over a decade. She’s despised by the male partners in the firm — Will was the one exception. These pariahs, portrayed by the Kings as misogynistic, stupid, or both, are constantly trying to oust her, and Diane always prevails. In her only office photo, she poses with Hillary Clinton. She’s a survivor.

Christine Baranski, who gets to play an impeccably dressed high-minded badass, is the breakout star of the show. Of course, Baranski is not really breaking out. For over three decades, her career has had a strange durability without ever really exploding. Before The Good Wife, Baranski played Cybill Shepherd’s sassy friend Maryann in the sitcom Cybill. She’s starred in many Broadway productions and has had supporting roles in a handful of popular films, including The Birdcage and Mamma Mia! As Baranski told the New York Times, she finds herself to be in a “perpetual state of being discovered.” It’s over, Christine. We’ve found you.

A very quick search of #DianeLockhart reveals these tweets:

@Glitterkorn: Christmas party fun! Getting ready to channel my inner #DianeLockhart and ROCK IT business-style #GoodWife

@andthenisay: If I weren’t already in love with Christine Baranski? I’d be in love with Christine Baranski #thegoodwife #dianelockhart #cybill #lesbian

@chrisharnick: The amount of Diane in this episode of #TheGoodWife makes life worth living

The cult of Diane extends beyond The Good Wife’s fan base, beyond the black hole of social media. “You know, I was watching The Good Wife the other night, and I was looking at Diane Lockhart,” said actress Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy Olson on AMC’s Mad Men, in a Rolling Stone interview. “[And I was] going, ‘That’s who Peggy would be.’ This strong woman who’s sort of at the top of her game. I think that’s who she would be, but in advertising instead of law.” In other words, Diane Lockhart is the fulfillment of Peggy Olson, cable’s most adored feminist. Moss paid the network show a huge compliment, and Baranski was flattered by Moss’s comparison. “It’s so cool!” Baranski told The Daily Beast. She explained:

First of all, I think she’s so great on [Mad Men], but the point is just so well taken that in that era a woman couldn’t do what a Diane Lockhart does now. And now the world is filled with Diane Lockharts in all walks of life. Women are still fighting for equal pay — go figure! — but there’s been progress and I think the strength of the Diane character is seeing someone who actually got to the top.

Unlike Alicia, Diane got to the top on her own. She made sacrifices. Even though she wears expensive clothes (elegant sheath dresses, usually paired with tasteful statement jewelry, red lipstick, and killer stilettos) and enjoys expensive dinners (steak and martinis), she has paid a penalty for having a high-octane career. Her work is essentially her home. But that’s okay. A traditional family she may lack, but freedom she has in great measure.

Will’s death brings Diane and Alicia together for the first time since their firms split. In last season’s finale, Diane decided to say goodbye to the pariahs at LG and join Florrick/Agos, now Florrick, Agos & Lockhart. Meanwhile, Alicia is asked to consider running for state’s attorney. “I’m never saying yes,” she tells Eli Gold (Alan Cumming), Peter Florrick’s ruthless-yet-lovable right-hand man, in the 60-second teaser for season six. A sincere Shermanesque statement? (“I’m not running! I have no interest in running!” she insists.) We’ll find out as the season unfolds. I wouldn’t be surprised if Alicia, ever evolving, must again come to terms with a completely new world.

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Briana Fasone is a writer living in New York City.


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