TV: The Good Wife (Season 1)

The Good Wife is a veritable clinic on how not to market a TV show to me. Step 1, call it The Good Wife. Step 2, put Julianna Margulies in it. On paper, I’m right out. Fortunately, Jenn pointed me toward it after sampling some episodes, and I’m so glad she did. I’m five seasons late, but I’m finally catching on to one of network TV’s best series.

Margulies stars as Alicia Florrick, the dutiful wife of Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), a disgraced state’s attorney imprisoned following a highly public sex scandal. To support her family Alicia resumes a long dormant legal career, taking a junior associate’s position at a high-powered Chicago law firm. She got the job through an old law school friend, Will Gardner (Josh Charles), but there’s a catch: she’s in competition with young hotshot Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) to keep the position. Complicating things is the fact that Alicia and Will have an unexplored romantic history, which resurfaces with Peter out of the picture.

Even as she’s busy refamiliarizing herself with the demands of the legal life, her plate is full on the home front. Peter’s efforts to appeal his conviction entangle the family in his rivalry with current state’s attorney Glenn Childs (the ubiquitous Titus Welliver). Alicia is torn: on the one hand, angry at Peter and happy to move on, but on the other concerned about the impact of their marital strife on her kids Grace (Makenzie Vega) and Zach (Graham Phillips). She finds herself in a thorny position: should she support her husband’s long-term comeback strategy, thereby keeping the family together, or should she pursue her rekindled career passion and move on with her life?

On the surface, The Good Wife presents as a law procedural, and this aspect of the show is fairly episodic: each week a new case, which Alicia and her colleagues work diligently to win, and which is generally resolved by the end of the hour. Fortunately, the cases are consistently complex and interesting, and there’s very little formula as to how they shake out. Sometimes the heroes win, sometimes they fail; sometimes justice is served, sometimes not so much. Whatever the result, the show gets a lot of dramatic mileage out of the inherent ethical dilemmas of the profession. If it were just a law show, it would be a highly satisfying one.

But the show does a lot more, incorporating elements of other TV genres. It’s a family drama, as Alicia wrangles the children, butts heads with her opinionated mother-in-law Jackie (Mary Beth Peil), and wrestles with complicated emotions surrounding her marriage. It’s a workplace drama, as office politics frequently intrude on Alicia’s work, and more prominently impact the lives of the senior partners: Will and Diane Lockhart (a spirited Christine Baranski). It’s a P.I. show: the firm has an ass-kicking in-house investigator, Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi), who is likably cynical, self-interested, and mysterious. (I’d totally watch a spin-off show about Kalinda.) And there are elements of mystery and intrigue, as the details of Peter’s past and Childs’ hidden agenda emerge, threading through the season.

But even more than genre, The Good Wife succeeds through its well defined, realistic characters. And not just the principals, all of them constantly pressured by tough ethical decisions that balance personal values against legal or political expediency. There’s practically an army of memorable guest roles, and it’s here that the show blows most procedurals right out of the water. Its recurring characters and one-shot suspects are rarely simple tools of the plot, propelling episodes toward neat resolutions. They all feel like real people, living and breathing in the show’s universe.

In the end, The Good Wife has a little of everything: great characters, satisfying episodic structure, season-long intrigues, intelligent writing, thought-provoking moral ambiguity, strong acting and production values — everything you could want from a smart contemporary TV series. Highly recommended.

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