'The Good Wife' has kept viewers on Alicia's side by portraying Lockhart Gardner as a workplace many would recognize, and by not making her into a saint or the only empathetic character.
(Photo: Craig Blankenhorn, CBS)
Apparently no one told The Good Wife that the prestige broadcast drama was dead.
You know the drill: No broadcast drama has won the Emmy since 24 in 2006, and none have even been nominated since CBS' legal series last made the list in 2011. The networks have, it seems, resigned themselves to being the home of popular but slight soaps, crime shows and adventures - leaving the quality mantle to cable series like Showtime's 2012 Emmy winner, Homeland.
So imagine how surprising it is that a broadcast stalwart, The Good Wife, has turned into the best drama on television at the moment, bar none. And it's done so without sacrificing any of its entertainment value, while working under the limitations broadcast shows must accept in exchange for their higher visibility: Longer runs, the annoyance of advertising breaks, the constraints on content, and the more pressing ratings demands.
As if to emphasize its accomplishment, this rise in Good Wife's status corresponds with a decline of Homeland, which airs opposite it on Sunday nights (9 ET/PT). Even in decline, mind you, Homeland is still one of TV's better shows. But where Homelandwas once great, it's now merely good, and where it once stood as a serious drama it's now better described as a cleverly constructed spy story.
In many ways, The Good Wife is an ideal TV series: the CBS procedural evolved to its highest form. Most every week, it offers the pleasure of a self-contained story - a battle to stop an execution, a fight between a surrogate and the couple who hired her - told in breakneck fashion, with twists that come out of the plot and the characters rather than being imposed from outside. And it builds those stories around one of TV's strongest regular casts, exquisitely led by Julianna Margulies, and what has to be TV's best corps of recurring guests.
It's no great shock to find a network drama that works as weekly entertainment; that's what the successful ones all do. What separates The Good Wife is the level of storytelling that spools out behind and around its cases, as the show explores politics in all its personal and public manifestations. You have Peter Florrick's battle to first win and then run the governor's office. And this season, most spectacularly, you have Alicia's battle to leave her old law firm, Lockhart Gardner, and strike out on her own.
In this legal civil war, Alicia is obviously the heroine. (Notice the way the show kept us on Alicia's side by portraying Lockhart Gardner as a workplace many would recognize, one where the employers demand loyalty while showing none themselves.) But wisely, the show has not made her a saint, or left her as the only empathetic character: We can root for Alicia while still suffering for Diane (Christine Baranski, who deserves to be part of any Emmy conversation).
What you're left with is one of the rare broadcast dramas that recognizes that people are complicated: Good people with justifiable aims, like Alicia, can achieve them in ways that are sneaky and selfish. And people behaving badly, like Will, have an almost infinite capacity to convince themselves they're in the right. That recognition that our actions and our self-image are not always in sync, coupled with the cast's ability to convey ambiguity, is what makes this series so special.
And that is what Homeland has lost. In that heady, Emmy-winning first season, the series was essentially a tale of two people in conflict -- Claire Danes' Carrie Mathison and Damian Lewis' Nicholas Brody -- both of whom had been damaged by the war on terror. The mystery we had to solve was whether Brody's suffering had turned him into a terrorist. But rather than ending the story, the solution led us to more interesting questions. Considering what he had been through, could you blame him? And considering what some of his enemies had done, could you root against him?
Three seasons in, sadly, the questions have become simpler and less intriguing, as the show gathers more of its jolts from plot than character. In place of the complicated dance between Brody and Carrie, you have a more straightforward search for the people who blew up the CIA's headquarters, and a more standard-issue bad guy in Iranian intelligence official Majid Javadi. Where once your rooting interests were torn, now they're united behind Carrie and Saul: No matter what realpolitik approach you take to Javadi, no audience is going to root for a man who brutally and graphically murdered his ex-wife with a broken bottle. Unless the story leads to the discovery that Brody's daughter Dana was the mastermind behind the attacks, it's hard to imagine a conclusion that can match the emotional jolt the first season delivered.
Granted, on TV, quality is a moving target. A show that looks terrific today could falter or be outmatched tomorrow, and a show that seems to be falling can suddenly rise again. As long as Homeland has Danes, Lewis and Mandy Patinkin, greatness will always be within its reach -- but right now, it's eluding its grasp.
They've grabbed hold of greatness at The Good Wife. Here's hoping they don't let go.