It’s a sight we’re all pretty familiar with: the disgraced politician, standing before a room full of reporters, apologising for the immoral and/or illegal acts he got caught doing. In 2008 it was Eliot Spitzer, then-governor of New York. Standing at his side as he scrunched up his face during a press conference: his wife. He was disgraced. He was done for.
But what about her?
That, in a nutshell, is the premise of The Good Wife. Premiering in 2009, it was inspired by the Spitzer scandal – and, of course, any number of earlier scandals, including Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. For all of the scandals, during all of those press conferences, the question is always the same: what about her?
And so The Good Wife opens during a press conference in which Peter Florrick, the Illinois State’s Attorney played by Chris Noth, admits to and apologises for sleeping with prostitutes, and then denies that the prostitution is part of a larger corruption scandal. Then he grabs his wife’s hand and storms away from the podium.
But we see the press conference from her perspective – the unnatural colors, the bursts of light as flashbulbs pop, the hollow echo of a sea of shouting voices. When he grabs her, she’s not holding out her hand to him in support, but instead reaching to pluck a stray thread from his coat, one that’s become the entire focus of her attention as he stands bloviating at the podium. The scene takes only a few minutes, but it sets the stage for the entire show. This show is not about a disgraced politician clawing at the shreds of his reputation.
It’s about his wife.
The rest of the pilot sets up the show’s major stories with neat efficiency. Following Peter’s conviction for corruption, Alicia, a former lawyer who gave up her job to have kids and support her husband, must go back to work. She joins a slick law firm run by an old friend, Will, who’s been nursing a thing for her since law school. She’s one of two new hires on a six-month probationary period, competing for a single job. The other, Cary, is a hotshot young recent grad with boatloads of oozy charm and even more ambition. Peter is fighting his conviction from prison. And finally we learn that the man who replaced Peter as State’s Attorney really has it out for him, and is willing to take her down as collateral damage.
And, in all fairness, it sounds pretty rote. It has an interesting elevator pitch, granted, but the rest of it?
Well, it turns out it’s pretty great.
The first season (PLEASE DO NOT SPOIL THE REST OF THE SERIES) abounds in exceptional actors. Noth plays Peter with the perfect balance of oily wheeler-dealer and sincere penitent, and Margulies has taken an intensely internal, private character and .
The show and rounds out the cast with similarly excellent actors playing similarly excellent characters. These include the PI on the firm’s pay, Kalinda Sharma, played by Archie Panjabi, Peter’s formidable mother, played by Mary Beth Piel, smarmily charming Matt Czuchry as smarmily charming rival Cary, Alan Cumming, whose character is running Peter’s reelection campaign, and Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart, one of the partners in Alicia’s firm. Recurring characters include Gary Cole as a red-state ballistics expert and a rotating selection of characters actors turning in fantastic performances as judges, lawyers and cops.
The thing about all these actors? They’re really good. Every one of them. I don’t mean to be harsh about slick network TV procedurals, but for every Law & Order or Homicide: Life on the Streets out there there are five hammy, overacted, undergood Boston Legals and Ally McBeals. Which is not to cast aspersions upon the audiences who make those shows hits, only to point out that such shows can be of varying quality, and occasionally cast for attractiveness over talent.
Happily, on The Good Wife, the actors are as talented as they are attractive.
The best actors can’t do much with underwritten characters. Fortunately, the main characters on TGW are generally very well-written. If the one-off characters are occasionally undercooked, the main cast is consistently surprising and likable. Even smarmy Cary is immediately characterized as interesting, likable and sympathetic.
I ran across an insightful comment about the show somewhere recently: it’s actually about the bad guys. The main characters are rich, privileged and powerful. Alicia works for a giant evil corporate firm with almost infinite money and resources, defending people who very often did do the bad things they’re being held accountable for doing. Her husband is legitimately slimy; he really did spend $30,000 on a prostitute and may actually be as corrupt as he’s accused of being. Compare them to the underpaid cops and the overworked district attorneys they so often come up against.
And yet, god damn, they’re all fascinating and sympathetic. All of them, even the probably-completely-evil ones. That’s the sign of some good damned writing.
Theoretically, where the show falls down – well, trips, but then regains its footing – is in exploring Alicia’s story outside the immediate present. By the end of season 1 we know absolutely nothing about her beyond how she relates to her husband, her kids, her mother-in-law, and her boss. Are her parents alive? Does she even have any friends?
But it's here that the show is doing something really interesting and sophisticated: the fact that we don’t know much about Alicia outside her immediate dramas is the point. She literally begins the show with no identity other than ‘wife of disgraced politician’; we learn about her as she reevaluates her life and rediscovers her own identity. It’s a brave, slick, occasionally frustrating, totally compelling storytelling tactic – one that would fail were the show any less great.
Similarly, we know very little about the rest of the characters; by the second episode of Season 2 (which I just started, so again PLEASE NO SPOILERS) we’ve learned more about Will than we did in 23 episodes of S1. So I feel certain we’ll learn more about Alicia soon. It appears that we're in good hands with this show.
The takeaway being: this show has consistently surprised me. It surprised me from the first by being better than its premise suggested. It surprised me with the range, the depth and the excellence of its writing and acting. And it blindsided me with a gentle reminder about my own relationship with pop culture, which I explore in an essay we'll be posting tomorrow
In short, this is a good show and well worth your time. And, special note to Bex: you were totally right and I’m sorry it took me so long to start watching.