“The Good Wife” Is The Best Show On Television Right Now
The CBS legal drama, now in its sixth season, continually shakes up its narrative foundations and proves itself fearless in the process. Spoilers ahead, if you’re not up to date on the show.
There is no need to be delicate here: If you're not watching The Good Wife, you are missing out on the best show on television. I won't qualify that statement in the least — I'm not talking about the best show currently airing on broadcast television or outside of cable or on premium or however you want to sandbox this remarkable show. No, the legal drama is the best thing currently airing on any channel on television.
That The Good Wife is this perfect in its sixth season is reason to truly celebrate. Few shows embrace complexity and risk-taking in the way that this show has done and, even after last year's stellar season — which saw Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) and Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) leave their mentors and start their own law firm and which shocked us with the death of Will Gardner (Josh Charles) — the show has pushed itself into even more challenging territory more than 100 episodes into its run.
Created by husband-and-wife team Robert and Michelle King, The Good Wife has always looked to test the plasticity of its concept. Initially a legal procedural with serialized elements, the show balanced a case-of-the-week format for Alicia with ongoing domestic issues. The first season followed Alicia as she struggled with the decision to stand by her husband, incarcerated Illinois State's Attorney Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), even after he admitted to sleeping with prostitutes. How would she care for their two teenage children, Zach (Graham Phillips) and Grace (Makenzie Vega), while juggling a demanding career and competing with associates 20 years younger than her? And what of her unresolved feelings for her employer, Will?
But these basic queries soon became further tempered by the deep themes that the show has enjoyed exploring over the years, issues of morality, marriage, technology, and legality. The Good Wife incisively probes our collective cultural institutions to find spots of vulnerability and exposes these potential weaknesses, prodding them with a well-sharpened blade. If the show has been about, as the Kings have suggested in interviews numerous times, the "education of Alicia Florrick," viewers have been able to see how Margulies' Alicia has had to compromise her ethical integrity in pursuit of other goals, some lofty and idealistic and others personal and perhaps selfish. Alicia has had to exist in the harsh glare of the public spotlight and make choices that others, living lives of quiet privacy, have not. Every one of her actions has been under scrutiny, both that of the public within the show's narrative and that of the viewer.
The Good Wife is historically no stranger to shaking things up. The show pushed Alicia together with tough-as-nails legal snoop Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi) in the pilot episode, allowing for their friendship — developed over drinks and shared workloads — to unfold, only to explode this dynamic by revealing that Kalinda had slept with Alicia's husband when she worked at the state's attorney's office. (That Alicia then packed up all of Peter's stuff and had it moved to an apartment, while he was rejoicing over his re-election, was cause for celebration as well as sorrow.)
And while the two women currently haven't appeared together on screen in more than 30 episodes, there is perhaps some hope that, in Season 6, the duo might finally mend their rift: In the Oct. 12 episode ("Oppo Research"), the writers went to lengths to bring up the affair between Kalinda and Peter, and the looming threat of Lemond Bishop (Mike Colter), a drug kingpin in a slick Brioni suit, might bring the two women back together somehow. Or it might not: The show has proven itself impossible to predict at times, not least of all because of the suspended Alicia/Kalinda developments. It's Alicia who brings up the affair, and Alicia who seems to be carrying a grudge — and yet Margulies makes her enmity all the more sympathetic because of how nuanced her performance is. Even when she's prickly or righteously indignant, Alicia remains innately sympathetic.
That's no easy feat, particularly as Alicia has of late considered running for state's attorney, a position once held by her philandering husband (now Illinois state governor) and one that offers some semblance of symmetry. After standing by her man at press conferences in which the most personal details of her private life were held out for the 24-hour news cycle, wouldn't it just be perfect if she ended up replacing Peter, at least symbolically, in the position he held when their lives imploded?
But Alicia has a lot to consider: the current S.A., James Castro (Michael Cerveris), has a vendetta against her; her partner Cary is currently facing trial for drug-related charges; Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) has now joined them at the firm as a new partner; her nascent campaign is already compromised thanks to Bishop; and there is more trouble at home. Which brings us back to the opposition research of this week's episode, written by the Kings; even as Alicia must confront what Eli (Alan Cumming) and her potential campaign manager Jonathan Elfman (Steven Pasquale) are telling her about her own life and that of her family. Alicia's coldness, her ability to compartmentalize, her fury at Zach — after discovering that he lied to her about his girlfriend having an abortion — is further compounded by the fact that Alicia realizes that she should have noticed what was going on in her home. Her flashbacks to Zach and Nisa (Rachel Hilson) kissing in his bedroom, and of Zach furtively washing his sheets, reveal the conflict at play inside Alicia's mind. Is she guilty of not paying enough attention to her kids? Has she placed her role as a partner above that of mother?
These are not the things that race through Peter's mind, by the way: The show is clear to depict the weight of this discovery on Alicia, and she masks her guilt by lashing out, by making a list, by sublimating her emotion over the telephone and channeling it inward. It is a reminder that working mothers don't have the luxury of looking the other way, and it's a reminder that the sacrifices that Alicia has made do carry heavy consequences.
That's a testament to The Good Wife itself, which never shies away from portraying its characters as realistically flawed (even "Saint Alicia" herself) or as second-guessing themselves, even as the show itself takes bigger and bigger risks with its storytelling. I never imagined a day when Lockhart/Gardner wouldn't be the central locus for the show or that Alicia's love interest would be shot to death in court without a single warning or without a resolution to their star-crossed romance. But life takes us in very strange directions, and The Good Wife has proved itself more than willing to shake up the very underpinnings of its central conceit. Lovers quarrel and fall out, people die, firms dissolve, careers fracture, and the world keeps spinning.
Alicia may not win the battle for state's attorney (or, who knows, she could!), but the fact that the Kings are willing to push the characters out of their comfort zones — potentially setting up a day when Cary and Diane are on the opposite side of the courtroom as Alicia — is part of the fun of watching The Good Wife. Anything is possible at this point. That's unheard of, especially for a show that has aired 116 episodes to date and which, as we're often reminded, produces 22 episodes a season in a television landscape that now puts a far higher reward on shorter-run cable fare. That it has pushed the boundaries of broadcast television under the eye of trigger-happy censors is remarkable.
Even working within the restrictions of a traditional broadcast network, The Good Wife still manages to be the most nuanced adult drama in terms of the hard questions it poses about our lives, our society, and about our priorities. It is smart, steamy, and unflinching, turning its gaze to red-button topics from which many shows flee in terror. It is even, at times, also one of the most consistently amusing shows, offering both shrewd cultural commentary and genuine guffaws.
It helps that the cast is flawless at every turn: Witness Margulies' look of horror when she learns of Zach's secret or Czuchry's face when he's forced to cut open his hand in prison earlier this season. Or Panjabi, always so confident and glowering, subtly shaking in the presence of Colter's imposing Bishop, who manages to intimidate merely by being polite and poised. Baranski can do more with a raised eyebrow or Cumming with a sharp breath than many actors can in an entire scene. (Diane's emotional breakdown upon seeing Will's corpse remains a tour de force.) The cast is clearly game for whatever new drama comes their way, deftly upping their performances as plots tighten or loosen around their characters. There is a natural dexterity to how well their performances balance the equally taut scripts from the Kings and the writing staff, words that leap off of the page and out of the actors' mouths with a lush richness that is impossible at times to capture.
That the show manages to be this stellar at this point, rather than resting on its well-earned laurels, is what makes it truly exceptional — The Good Wife isn't content to just be merely good; it constantly pushes itself to be extraordinary.