I passed on CBS’ “The Good Wife” when it initially aired in 2009. To be accurate I watched the first episode, but the second, in which Denis O’Hare as an eccentric judge did something legally outrageous, buried the show for me. However, time, a subscription to Amazon Prime, the recommendations of friends and finally a desire to see “The Good Fight,” its sequel on CBS All Access, made me look again. So I binged, watching all seven seasons in about six weeks (being between jobs helped).
As a result this was my longest sustained TV series binge. It didn’t top my record of nine episodes in a day—that’s held by my New Year’s Day binge a number of years ago of Season 4 of “The Wire”—but “The Good Wife” is so addictive I was tuning in almost every night. I tried to stay away from spoilers, reviews and other online material, but due to news coverage when the show originally aired it was unavoidable that I knew of three key “Good Wife” events: Will Gardner’s murder, Kalinda Sharma’s departure in Season 6 and Diane Lockhart’s slapping Alicia Florrick’s face in the series finale. I usually hate being spoiled about anything, but this didn’t lessen my enjoyment in the slightest.
The verdict? For Seasons 1 through 5: Tremendous. For Seasons 6 and 7: A grade of C-minus and a long, loud raspberry.
For those who never watched the show, “The Good Wife” begins with the media-event resignation of Peter Florrick (Chris Noth) from the office of State’s Attorney for Cook County (Chicago) in light of charges that he used public funds to pay for prostitutes. Standing stoically by his side is his wife, Alicia (Julianna Margulies), enduring the type of humiliation with which we’ve unfortunately become so familiar (See Silda Spitzer, who was the inspiration for the show’s creators; Hillary Clinton; Dina Matos McGreevey; Huma Abedin, etc. etc.). After his conviction and imprisonment, Alicia needs to return to the practice of law to support herself and her two teen-aged children. Fortunately her old Georgetown Law School flame, Will Gardner (Josh Charles) offers her a first year associate’s position at his Big Law firm, Stern, Lockhart and Gardner, where she’ll be competing for a more permanent berth with another first year associate, Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) who’s a good 15 years her junior. The game is on.
At this point I suppose I should get the elephant out of the room. As an attorney I’m sometimes irked at the inaccurate way TV portrays the legal system, but sometimes not—I was a huge fan of “L.A. Law” back in the day, and their shenanigans were legendary. Insofar as “The Good Wife” is concerned, its track record in this regard is somewhat erratic. It seems for every six things they get wrong, they do get at least one thing right. There are good scenes involving trial preparation and discovery, and it was refreshing to see Alicia handle gritty bond court work after dwelling in the rarefied air of Big Law. But I had to throw in the towel on legal accuracy after seeing a deposition conducted in an early episode. Among other things: (1) Opposing counsel sat right next to Cary Agos’ client; (2) Cary did not demand that opposing counsel move to the other side of the conference table, as is standard (3) Opposing counsel didn’t question Cary’s client, but laid out a scenario in a long conversational discourse (4) Without an “Objection as to form” from Cary. At this point it was either nitpick the show or enjoy it, so I opted for the latter. Disbelief wasn’t just suspended–it was thrown out the window.
So enough of the law–we’re here for a TV show, and for my money, the first five seasons of “The Good Wife” featured the best writing on a network series I’ve seen in a very long time. It was immediately apparent that the show’s creators, Robert and Michelle King, were playing to the urban and the urbane, and by knowing their audience so well, they produced a particularly engrossing series. The storytelling was taut, with little braking for explanation, whether as to a legal point or otherwise. It amused me to hear Will Gardner refer to ex-senior partner Stern’s cronies as “alter kockers” with no translation (per Leo Rosten’s excellent book, “The Joys of Yiddish,” the cleaned-up English equivalent would be “old farts”). Similarly when Will and his partner Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) are discussing funeral arrangements for Stern, the latter asks where the family will be “sitting shiva,” i.e., observing the Jewish period of mourning. Again, no explanation because refreshingly the audience is expected to know. Another source of enjoyment: how entertainingly “The Good Wife” serves as an astute tutorial on politics, both public and private. Peter Florrick’s world and especially the maneuverings of Eli Gold (Alan Cumming), his political advisor, are neatly mirrored in the power struggles at Lockhart Gardner where name and equity partners play tug of war over the firm’s future.
After bingeing so many episodes, I’m a bit blurry as to what happened when. Nevertheless, some stories are particularly memorable. The superb episode “Doubt” from the first season, featuring rapid cross-cutting between jury deliberations on the fate of a college student accused of murder and flashbacks to the trial testimony. We see the jury vote by written ballot, but after much angst, the defendant is persuaded by her mother to take a 10 year plea deal rather than gamble on a verdict, though the defense made a strong case that there was no crime—it was a victim-induced accident. The heartbreaking reveal? The jury voted “not guilty,” but not in time to prevent that young woman from throwing away a significant portion of her life. Talk about cutting to the bone. Similarly a pair of key discussions, one between Alicia and Will, the other involving Diane, are true eye-openers for Alicia as well as the audience. When Will turns at the last minute and votes against Alicia’s choice for a new associate in order to support the hiring of equity partner David Lee’s (Zach Grenier) niece, Alicia is all “Why???” Will calmly replies: “Because I owed him one. How do you think you were hired?” When Alicia is made an equity partner for political reasons to the exclusion of other fourth-year associates, Diane’s confession to Alicia that the only reason Stern made her (Diane) a partner was out of tokenism, namely to fend off accusations of sexual harassment and discrimination made against the firm. And the episodes involving the courthouse massacre in which Will dies and its aftermath are just flawless.
Unfortunately, “The Good Wife” began to lose steam for me beginning in Season 6. Plots and machinations became repetitious; while watching Will, Diane, David and Julius Cain (Michael Boatman) plot to vote out a disagreeable partner was delicious in Season 2, it became tedious several seasons later as paranoia among partners set in and the gamesmanship took precedence over the lawyering (no wonder Cary leaves the firm). Even more, Kalinda Sharma’s departure was a major disappointment for several reasons. Archie Panjabi played that role with panache—it was a kick to watch Kalinda in action, either sleuthing or seducing. I also thought the plot which led to her exit was both awkward and awkwardly handled—a drug kingpin like Lemond Bishop would have made it his business to kill her. And while Cary Agos’ standing trial on drug charges was a nail-biter, his subsequent ascension to name partner undid our interest in him. He was far more engaging as a snarky first year associate and Deputy State’s Attorney, even more so as Alicia’s partner as they bolted from Lockhart Gardner. Many fans point to Will Gardner’s murder as the breaking point for the show, but oddly, I didn’t miss Will all that much at first. However, as the quality diminished over Seasons 6 and especially 7, I really felt his absence. Without him the backbiting at the law firm became very irritating, and I very much missed the rapport he had with Diane.
It’s impossible to praise the acting on this show enough. The casting was spot-on; it was a major asset for the series to be shot in New York, thus enabling it to draw from the pool of Broadway talent. It was also a shrewd move to have so many actors in recurring roles, which certainly kept things lively. Particularly memorable were Patti Nyholm (Martha Plimpton), attorney extraordinaire, Neil Gross (John Benjamin Hickey), internet billionaire with his amusingly named “Chumhum” search engine, and especially the louche Colin Sweeney (Dylan Baker, creatively cast against type) with his equally kinky fiancees and wives, wonderfully played by Morena Baccarin and Laura Benanti. Whenever he appeared, it was a party. On the other hand, I thought the show had too much of Michael J. Fox as Louis Canning, and not enough of Gary Cole as Kurt McVeigh (Be still my heart!) or Michael Boatman as Julius Cain (His “Because I don’t like you” to voted-out partner Derrick Bond was one of the show’s funniest moments). I also wish we had had more of Matthew Goode as Finn Polmar—he brought a refreshing Jimmy Stewart touch to a world of some slick characters. But “The Good Wife” stands on its regulars, and while all were excellent, special honors must go to Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart—she is simply superb in that role.
A few final, random thoughts:
- The antics of the NSA eavesdroppers were great comic relief. I cracked up at every one of their goat videos.
- I really enjoyed the guest cameos of the judges and arbitrators: Jane Alexander, Jane Curtin, Ana Gasteyer (“In my opnion…”), Jeffrey Tambor, Richard Masur, Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior!), Vincent Curatola (Johnny Sack!), Jay O. Sanders. And Christopher McDonald as the crooked bond court judge made a great “Man You Love to Hate.”
- Speaking of villains, I thought Michael Cerveris as State’s Attorney James Castro was the best, what with that shaved head and soft-grained voice. It was hard to believe this was the same actor I saw as the closeted father in the Broadway musical “Fun Home.”
- I’m sure you’ve noticed I’ve omitted discussion of Alicia and Peter’s family. For the record, I liked Zach until he decided to drop out of college and run off to France with his older girlfriend. I disliked Grace until she pitched in to secure clients for her mother’s new law firm. And both mothers—Alicia’s and Peter’s—were annoying, ditto Alicia’s brother.
- As excellent as it was, “The Good Wife” left several threads dangling: Kalinda and Peter’s one night together was never really explained, though I picked up a hint this was compensation for his assistance in disguising her identity and erasing her tracks as “Leela”. We never learned whether Kalinda’s husband really left town, and whether he did so via her Plan A or Plan B. And what happened with Special Agent Lana Delaney after discovery of the information leak to her girlfriend Kalinda?
- Sorry to all Jason Crouse (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) fans, but Alicia’s best squeeze was Will Gardner. Second place goes to Finn Polmar.
- And what of Alicia’s future? In the final analysis she’s a survivor, though in my mind not an admirable one. Her “standing by her man” may have wowed voters, but there’s a doormat element to that kind of pose. Staying in that marriage came to seem masochistic, though it was obvious she and Peter continually and mutually used each other. I thought she was at her most likeable when she was most independent—bolting from Lockhart Gardner with Cary, and later starting her own firm. Having lost just about everything else, running for office seems to be all she has left by the end of the series.
- And in case you’re wondering, I think she deserved that slap from Diane Lockhart for trashing Kurt McVeigh.
Onward to “The Good Fight”!