A Murky Mary Sue: “The Good Wife”

The Good Wife

I started late, but I’ve now caught up with the UK run of The Good Wife – still some six episodes behind the US, but at least back on a weekly schedule. It wasn’t difficult to get up to speed – the individual episodes of this slick-and-sly TV series go down very easily. The broader plot arc is so far lightly but compellingly applied, and only once has it noticeably stuttered, when an episode ended with a cliff-hanging question which does not get its answer for another three weeks. Apart from that single hiccup, The Good Wife is perfectly paced and beautifully measured. It’s seamless TV.

All of which might make it sound undemanding. I confess to raising an eyebrow when I read Richard Morgan including the show in a list of super-TV also populated by The Wire, The Sopranos and Deadwood, but if it surely isn’t anything like these titans – indeed, does not aim to be – nor is it Everybody Loves Raymond. (Here I’m getting onboard with that apples-oranges-bananas style debate and then some.) Iain isn’t so far off when he picks The West Wing as a decent comparator: The Good Wife is a comfy, brightly-lit show about good people trying to do nice things in intelligent ways.

What it also attempts to be, however, is a morally ambiguous treatise on contemporary mores. The show’s protagonist, Alicia Florrick, is the eponymous spouse, standing by her imprisoned husband following a sex scandal which has seen him ejected as State Attorney of Cook County (a very strong Chris Noth). Played both sympathetically and belieavably by Julianna Margulies, Alicia has to make ends meet taken a job as a junior associate at the law firm of an old friend, Will Gardner (Josh Charles channeling Mal Reynolds). Stern, Lockhart and Gardner is a large corporate law firm which, in the series pilot, assigns Alician to pro bono work. By ‘Threesome’, the first season’s ninth episode, however, both the company and Gardner himself have been revealed as something less than Atticus Finch may have liked:  he and the firm’s other active partner, Diane Lockhart, are admonished by the crusading civil rights lawyer, and absentee founder, Jonas Stern. “The both of you treat the practice of law like its used cars!” he tells them.

The show itself, however, steers away from such easy, knee-jerk judgements. In the episode ‘Lifeguard’, Alicia’s initial – and all too obvious – explanation for a judge’s irregular sentencing pattern, that he is racially biased, is proven to be far from the case. This was a welcome development, since previous episodes had seen Alicia happen upon a solution – in one episode the timing of a sprinkler system, in another a scrap of paper which suggests prosecution jury tampering –  all too conveniently. Her good fortune and unimpeachable moral instincts at times undercut the greys in which the show is otherwise painted: the currency of a celebrity culture – chat shows, gossip colums, kiss and tells – are seen from new perspectives; racial profiling is first rejected and then exhibited by the likeable but nihilistic investigator, Kalinda Sharma; attractive good guys are usually up to no good, whilst oleaginous bad guys are allowed a sympathetic, even innocent, side. The Good Wife, show and character, does not condemn, but question.

If the latest episodes in the series suggest a further muddying of the season’s waters, that will be all to the good: there is in The Good Wife the germ of a very interesting show, as well as a very entertaining one. If it can allow its protagonist and her travails, too, to be tainted in the ways of those around her, then its examination of the laws that govern us – and the gap between public and private morality – could pack a memorable punch. And that slow reveal would have been part of the point.