There’s a growing schism in the TV business between the kinds of dramas you find on cable and those that the broadcast networks air. For the most part, cable is where you go for complicated ongoing narratives, flawed characters and major creative ambition, while you primarily look to the networks for admirable heroes in morally black-and-white stories that wrap up neatly by the end of the hour.
But for more than a season and a half now, CBS’ “The Good Wife” has admirably found a way to bridge those two worlds: to present elaborate story arcs and moral ambiguity by the barrelful at the same time it offers at least one standalone plot per week for the folks who want to turn on the TV at 10 o’clock and turn it off at 11 feeling like they were just told a complete story.
Tonight’s episode is a great example of just how many balls “The Good Wife” is capable of juggling in a single hour, as we get a climax to the ongoing war for control of the Lockhart/ Gardner & Bond firm, a major development in the campaign for State’s Attorney, important personal and professional changes for firm private investigator Kalinda (Archie Panjabi), and another case spinning out of “Good Wife” co-creator Robert King’s fascination with social media.
(Despite having an audience predominantly composed of viewers over 50, “The Good Wife” prides itself on staying abreast of how Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc. are shaping our daily conversations. Occasionally, the show tries too hard on that score, like a clunky recent ripped-from-the-headlines episode inspired by controversy over the factuality of “The Social Network,” but the effort’s there, and the show has a better overall command of technology than a lot of shows that are more youthful and allegedly cutting edge.)
That is a lot to deal with in an hour of television (minus commercials), and yet none of the stories feel rushed or shoehorned in. In the case of the law firm and election arcs, these are payoffs that have been months in the making, and the law firm story in particular feels well worth all the time they’ve put into it so far.
But what’s most compelling isn’t so much the amount of material, but the depth of it. The show deals smartly and candidly with issues of power, how business really gets done in our legal and political systems, and the trade-offs we all make just to get through the day.
In one key scene in tonight’s episode, our titular good wife Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) confronts boss, mentor and potential love interest(*) Will Gardner (Josh Charles) when she believes they’re pursuing their new case for the wrong reason.
(*) The slow-burning attraction between the two of them has been one of the show's weaker elements - dragged out with some of the usual will-they-or-won't-they tricks - and it helps this episode that it doesn't deal with it at all.
“Who do you know is doing something for the right reason?” Will demands. “I would love to meet them, because my guess is after five minutes of questioning, we’ll find the wrong reason.”
Will is not the obvious villain in the scene, nor Alicia the obvious hero, as he also points out that she should understand this sort of situation more clearly after all they’ve been through over the last year. It’s the kind of messy, grey morality that most network shows these days are afraid to even touch, yet “The Good Wife” deals with it constantly.
The series is such a rarity in today’s network landscape, in fact, that there seems to be a land rush of talented, recognizable, underemployed character actors to guest on the show early and often rather than play another suspect or grieving parent on one of the “CSI” or “NCIS” shows. Every episode is overflowing with Hey, It’s That Guy!s, from recurring players like Michael J. Fox (an unscrupulous lawyer who uses his medical condition to win sympathy with judges, juries and potential clients) and Gary Cole (as a ballistic expert with ties to the Tea Party and the keys to the heart of Christine Baranski’s otherwise-icy Diane Lockhart) to more infrequent guests. Tonight’s episode alone features Ken Leung (Miles from “Lost”) as Alicia’s client, Rita Wilson as opposing counsel, John Benjamin Hickey from “The Big C” as her client and Jerry Adler (Hesh from “The Sopranos”) as an elderly partner in the firm, on top of the familiar players from the firm and the various campaigns.
Though Chris Noth is still around as Alicia’s husband Peter (around whom the entire election arc revolves), “The Good Wife” has for the most part transcended its title, which did a good job selling what the pilot episode was about but not what the series has become. (In that way, it’s the opposite of “Terriers,” where the title did a horrible job attracting potential viewers but made sense to those who watched it.) Robert King recently joked that if he wanted the show to draw more younger viewers, they would rename it “The Sexy Wife.”
Regardless of what it’s called, though, it’s awfully good, and tonight’s episode neatly captures all the things that make it so.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com