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Obsessive, Compulsive, Procedural #3: ‘The Good Wife’

Obsessive, Compulsive, Procedural #3: ‘The Good Wife’

The Good Wife

Created by Michelle King and Robert King

imdb, CBS, Sundays at 9PM

3.01 A New Day
Directed by Brooke Kennedy
Written by Michelle King and Robert King, based on a story by Meredith Averill

3.03 Get A Room
Directed by David Platt
Written by Michelle King and Robert King, based on a story by Julia Wolfe

3.04 Feeding the Rat
Directed by Fred Toye
Written by Keith Eisner

3.05 Marthas and Catilins
Directed by Félix Enríquez Alcalá
Written by Ted Humphrey

3.06 Affairs of State
Directed by Dean Parisot
Written by Corinne Brinkerhoff


When CBS originally announced The Good Wife it seemed like a terrible idea. Make a TV series about the wife of a fallen politician? The one forced by circumstances and her own ambition to stand by his side and publicly forgive him? Even when doing so means doubling your public humiliation?

Three years in, The Good Wife is by far the best broadcast network drama currently on TV and the only network show to be nominated for a Best Drama Emmy in 2011. (It was also nominated in 2010 along with Lost.) What makes The Good Wife work so well is the tension between the legal procedural side of the show and the serial melodrama side of the show.

TV (especially the networks) have long been fascinated by shows involving cops, lawyers and doctors, but there has always been a sharp divide between the melodramas and the procedurals; between the shows that put their toys back nicely at the end of every episode and maintain the status quo and the shows that break their toys every episode and for whom the status quo is change, chaos and unhappiness.

Consider the difference between Emergency and E.R.: Emergency was a procedural, filled with running jokes like John Gage (Randolph Mantooth) never being able to get a date, but there was little substantive difference between an episode from the first season in 1972 and one from the last season in 1978 barring slight changes in wardrobe and hair-styles, while E.R. was a complex soap opera with characters leaving, coming back and most importantly evolving.

Sherlock Holmes does not evolve. You can kill him (or at least try to) but you can’t substantially change him. His fans won’t allow it. That’s why Gregory House is the same miserable addicted cripple this year that he was last year and that he was the year before that. The only character evolution allowed in House are the back-up cast and even there the evolution is limited: a character like Cutty can evolve to an understanding that House cannot be changed (which means leaving the show) or they can die (which means leaving the show).

A very few shows have been able to wed the one and done nature of the procedural to the melodramatic evolution of the serial. Most of these have been medical dramas, beginning with Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey. (My mother, having watched the show for close to 50 years, insists that the doctors on the day-time soap General Hospital actually treat patients. I have my doubts. It seems like they use the Operating Room for an ongoing series of either meet-cutes or meet-awkwards.)

Based on the record of TV history, the general public is willing to accept that their TV doctors can fail (and in-turn learn and evolve from that failure) in a way that they are rarely willing to accept from their cops and lawyers. This does make a certain amount of sense. Doctors fight death, which we know can be postponed but not beaten, while cops and lawyers fight crime, which we are less willing to accept as inevitable and unbeatable. This probably explains why TV detectives rarely fail (especially compared to their real-life counterparts) while TV doctors do fail, if not commonly, than certainly regularly.

There have been a few successful workplace dramas about cops and lawyers that use procedural elements to advance a serial story, like Cagney and Lacey, Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and N.Y.P.D. Blue, but The Good Wife is not quite from that tradition. Or at least not completely.

A more relevant precursor to The Good Wife is The Fugitive. Both series are about professionals torn from the life that they had planned and that they were living. Both Doctor Richard Kimble and Lawyer Alicia Florrick see their marriages destroyed. Both series use the tension between the serial and the procedural as the wound spring that drives the series, the tension between the unhappy status quo and the happy ending.

If you have ever watched episodes of The Fugitive than you probably remember William Conrad’s stirring narration that kicked off every episode beginning with the second season, “The Fugitive, a QM Production—starring David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble: an innocent victim of blind justice, falsely convicted for the murder of his wife … reprieved by fate when a train wreck freed him en route to the death house … freed him to hide in lonely desperation, to change his identity, to toil at many jobs … freed him to search for a one-armed man he saw leave the scene of the crime … freed him to run before the relentless pursuit of the police lieutenant obsessed with his capture.”

When The Fugitive started in 1963, Westerns were still popular, but they were no longer omni-present. The genius of The Fugitive was to take the pattern of travelling Westerns like Wagon Train, Maverick and, most aptly, Have Gun, Will Travel and adapt them to a modern context for which they were normally ill-suited. Having the cowboy hero ride into town, solve a problem and then ride away again at the end of the episode works in a Western context and, oddly in a science-fiction context – Star Trek after all was sold by Gene Roddenberry as “Wagon Train to the stars”- but in a modern context it turns your heroes into hoboes. Granted hoboes with a car in Route 66 or a hobo with a motorcycle in Then Came Bronson, but still hoboes.

(In fact, Canada’s most beloved family TV show explicitly used this pattern and called its hero a hobo: The Littlest Hobo – criminally excluded from this list by the way – whose stirring theme song Maybe Tomorrow by Terry Bush proclaimed every week that, “Maybe tomorrow I’ll want to settle down, until tomorrow I’ll just keep moving on.” Of course, the reason that The Littlest Hobo worked, the reason that the audience had no problem with the dog moving on at the end of every week, is that the children who watched the show shared a common fantasy that the nameless German Shepherd would visit their family and find a home with them.)

The genius of The Fugitive is to provide a reason to keep the hero moving, the need for Kimble to avoid police capture, clear his name and catch the one-armed man who killed his wife. (Significantly, the reason that Kimble and his wife were arguing the night she was killed was that Helen Kimble had just been diagnosed as infertile. Richard wanted to adopt and she did not want to. The one-armed man doesn’t just kill Kimble’s wife, he kills the possibility of Kimble having a family.)

Kimble was simultaneously a professional that you could respect and look up to, and a victim that you could have sympathy for and feel superior to. Most weeks, Kimble would be torn between his need to stay anonymous and his professional obligation to respect his Hippocratic Oath and help those who needed a doctor.

TV, especially network TV, is inherently conservative. There is a strong desire to return to the status quo, alongside an equally strong desire for happy endings. Normally, these two forces act in concert. In the case of The Fugitive, since Richard Kimble’s status quo was profoundly unhappy, the two forces worked against each other, driving the narrative of the series. This narrative engine proved popular enough that The Fugitive rose to the 5th most popular program on television in its second season.

The only downside to this narrative tension is that eventually you have to pay it off: Richard Kimble needs to catch the one-armed man, Adrian Monk needs to catch his wife’s killer, Simon Baker needs to catch Red John, the series must end.

Of course, when you do pay it off, the audience’s need to see the narrative tension paid off can set viewing records: the finale for The FugitiveThe Judgment: Part 2” or as William Conrad put it, “the day the running stopped” was watched on 72% of U.S. TV sets, despite being pre-empted by baseball in some areas, setting a record only broken later by Dallas (the reveal of Who Shot J.R.? “Who Done It?“) and the finale of M.A.S.H.Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” – itself the resolution of an unhappy status-quo. On a lesser scale, the finale to MonkMr. Monk and the End (Part Two)” holds the record for most-watched episode of a regular drama series on cable television.

The Good Wife is a star vehicle for Julianna Margulies, as The Fugitive was for David Janssen, although Margulies benefits (unlike Janssen) from an excellent and stable supporting cast.

While wrapped in a episodic legal procedure, the series is about the marriage destroyed by Peter (Chris Noth) Florrick’s sex scandal. The first season is devoted to getting Peter out of jail. The second season is dedicated to Peter winning back his job as Cook County state’s attorney in an election. In both years, the marriage between Peter and Alicia is in a kind of limbo, neither ended nor ongoing. In fact, the marriage is a bit like Schrödinger’s cat – neither alive nor dead, so long as Alicia does not open the box to examine her feelings about being married to Peter.

In the closing episodes of the second season, Alicia wins Peter his election by agreeing to sacrifice her privacy and do a television interview. Almost immediately afterwards, Alicia finds out that Peter, in addition to cheating on her with prostitutes, had an office affair with Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi), the investigator at her law firm, while they were both at the state’s attorney’s office. After Peter went to jail, Kalinda became Alicia’s best friend. This discovery by Alicia leads to her secretly separating from Peter and (eventually) pursuing a relationship with Will Gardner (Josh Charles) her boss, and friend from her days at law school.

The posters for this year’s episodes include the tagline “Don’t let the name fool you.” Implying that this year Alicia will neither be good nor a wife. The wife part is taken care of by her affair with Will, a relationship that he appears to take much more seriously than she does. Will keeps making tentative steps to make the relationship mean something more and then backing away when Alicia does not respond: telling her that he loves her, setting up a scenario where Alicia will pretend to be jealous of his ex-girlfriend Celeste Serrano (Lisa Edelstein), introducing himself to Alicia’s son Zach (Graham Phillips).

The third season shows that Alicia has learned from her experiences in the first two seasons, perhaps at the cost of her moral compass. In the first season, Alicia was frequently flummoxed by eccentric judges. In the third season, she has learned to (ab)use their eccentricities to get what she wants: manipulating a mediator with Will in “Get A Room“, stirring up the curiosity of a gregarious judge to turn a preliminary hearing into a full-blown evidentiary hearing in “Feeding the Rat” and tricking a Jewish judge to recuse himself from a case involving a Palestinian accused of a hate crime in “A New Day” and doing so the day before a Jewish high holiday, so that the case will be reassigned to a non-Jewish judge – a plan that only fails because Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) anticipates the tactic.

Cary has always been the dark amoral mirror to Alicia’s better nature, but this year Cary has become the more gracious opponent, while Alicia has bent the rules to the breaking point: deliberately shielding herself from evidence of her client fleeing the jurisdiction in “Affairs of State” and seriously discussing accusing an innocent man of murder in “Feeding the Rat” in order to to create reasonable doubt for her client, a tactic only abandoned because finding the real murderer would get her client out of jail faster. In other words, she chooses to do what’s right not because it is right, but because it is expedient. Compare this to Cary’s immediate surrender in the same episode when Alicia and Kalinda prove their client is innocent.

Cary’s new-found reform makes sense when you consider that Peter Florrick has committed his office to doing what is right rather than what is politically expedient. (He has already jeopardized an opportunity to be the key-note speaker at the Democratic convention in “Marthas and Catilins” by releasing the murderer Colin Sweeney (Dylan Baker) as part of a plea bargain designed to catch much worse criminals.) Peter’s new found zeal is perhaps a direct result of being thrown out by Alicia, trying to re-become a husband by becoming a better man, or it may be a reaction to the year that he spent in jail. In either case, Cary benefits by being given a moral compass at the same time that Alicia seems to have lost hers.

Nowhere is Alicia’s lack of moral compass better demonstrated than by her cruelty to Kalinda. Granted that Kalinda did have an affair with her husband, but neither woman knew each other at the time. It was a betrayal, but not a personal betrayal, not a betrayal of the friendship that they would form later. Of course, Kalinda did lie by omission in not admitting the affair to Alicia, but Alicia’s over-reaction to that cowardice is the first sign that Alicia has lost her way.

Curiously, just as Cary is reforming this season, so too is Kalinda, cutting fewer investigative corners, being more truthful and, most importantly, refusing to work on Peter’s file for Eli Gold (Alan Cumming).

The introduction of Caitlin D’arcy (Anna Camp) as the bright-eyed first year associate is another obvious way that the writers are showing how far Alicia has come since her own first year, for good and bad. Caitlin carries a torch for Will just as Alicia did and Will is attracted to her moral purity just as he was to Alicia’s. In fact, Will tells Alicia at the conclusion of “Marthas and Catilins” that she was Caitlin in her first year, hired over a more qualified Martha, because Will wanted her working for him. Left unspoken is that the decision between keeping Alicia or Cary in the first season was made under equally dubious circumstances. In other words, Alicia’s position at the firm has always been morally ambiguous, but she has only been aware of that moral ambiguity this year. That hard-won knowledge does not bring her happiness.

Besides a brilliant and stable supporting cast, the biggest difference between The Fugitive and The Good Wife is that there are multiple possible happy endings for Alicia to find and resolve the unhappy status quo. A casual reading would imply that the logical happy ending is for Alicia to repair her marriage and return to the ways things were before the sex scandal exploded her marriage, but it is equally possible that if Alicia were honest about her relationship with Will that it could grow into something more, or that instead of Peter running for Governor with Alicia supporting him, that it will be Alicia running for Governor with Peter supporting her.

How it is resolved is no where near as important as our understanding that Alicia has built her current life on quicksand, on an unhappy status quo that can be sustained temporarily but not permanently. (In a sense, Alicia is trapped on a treadmill: she has to run as hard as she can – like Richard Kimble – just to stand still.) For the moment, that tension between her unhappy status quo and the audience’s need for a happy ending fuels the best drama on network TV.

Michael Ryan


View more articles in Mike’s “Obsessive, Compulsive, Procedural’ column