Treated to such scintillating fare as a sex scene soundtracked by the libidinous strains of All Things Considered, viewers have now had four seasons to luxuriate in The Good Wife’s idiosyncratic blend of melodrama, legal/political wrangling, and ethical naughtiness. The result isn’t merely an ambitiously conceived and intricately executed series, but pure television filigree. The series, however, has reached a point where its concerns and obsessions are borne out through the sheer act of repetition, the most outstanding example being its ongoing, fitful attempts to introduce an adequate foil for Lockhart & Gardner employee Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi). The writers have painted themselves into a corner, as the character’s been established as a kind of investigative superwoman who needs to be drawn away into ill-advised plots so not every episode’s case is resolved from her near-magical powers. As a consequence, The Good Wife has made a couple of attempts at directly antagonizing her, first in season two with rival investigator Blake Calamar (Scott Porter), then earlier this season with her estranged husband, Nick Savarese (Mark Warren).
The latter figure turns Kalinda, whose take-no-prisoners swagger made her a fan favorite, into a shade of a battered woman cowed by his domineering and Paleolithic thuggery. Because of her usual inscrutability and lack of affect, the possibility of a deeper and seedier reason for Kalinda’s catatonia couldn’t immediately be dismissed, though series creators Robert and Michelle King ultimately tipped their hands when they abruptly wrote Nick out of the show with his implied death. (The one good thing to come out of this plotline was getting to see Kalinda drive over a guy.)
The Kings remain intent on giving Kalinda a nemesis, and to their credit, they’re proceeding with a softer approach. Enter protégé Robyn Burdine (Jess Weixler), whose investigative perspicacity is hidden beneath a sunny, fuzzy-sweatered exterior. In the recent episode “The Wheels of Justice,” Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry), a fourth-year associate at the Chicago firm, is about to interview a prospective new hire when he decides to bring Robyn in (two interviewers is twice as impressive as one), but a lawyer she’s not, and so he instructs her to neither say a word nor smile so much, and her ensuing deadpan is a thing of comedic beauty.
For a series laden with so many signifiers of Dramatic TV Realism, it often likes to pierce its verisimilitude with surprisingly cartoonish characters.
In fact, “The Wheels of Justice” exemplifies the best of The Good Wife. Beyond its stabs of riotous humor, the episode involves a case where a wealthy client could, thanks to a Supreme Court decision set to be delivered in 40 hours, put him away for 20 years. As a consequence, the whole Lockhart & Gardner team crams to put a case together at the last second, banking on the prosecution being even less prepared. The unreasonable deadline is certainly a storytelling gimmick that could have been remaindered from Ally McBeal, but the ensuing developments are handled with such care and nuance that an exercise in genre becomes thrilling.
Similarly, for a series laden with so many signifiers of Dramatic TV Realism (i.e. the distinctly rarefied reality of the upper-middle- and upper-classes), it often likes to pierce its verisimilitude with surprisingly cartoonish characters. While The Good Wife is exacting in how it depicts legal machinations behind the scenes, both in how much texture-providing jargon is dumped on the viewer (casually dropping terms such as voir dire without ever explaining them), and in often making its main characters party to ethically ambiguous positions. In fact, the series delights in tossing around the “Saint Alicia” epithet, originally granted to Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) for stoically standing by her philandering husband, with a knowing and ironical wink to viewers.
At the same time, this penchant for ill-defined moral gradients is often set against the show’s growing stable of recurring characters that could be charitably described as fancifully colorful. (The main cast, by contrast, is largely cut from the realist cloth.) The Good Wife has featured caricatures before (most notably Denis O’Hare’s Judge Charles Abernathy, the loving parody of a soft-hearted but scrupulous liberal), but this season has doubled down with the increasing prominence of Elspeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston), the scatter-brained legal savant with raspberry-flamed hair. Mere eccentricity is well-represented on the show, but Elspeth alternates brilliant legal insight with regular bouts of magpie-like distraction, often within the same take.
Elspeth sums up the way The Good Wife approaches the classic procedural conundrum whereby some key, previously withheld narrative device unveils itself to resolve the problem. As much as her shtick borders on deus ex machina, she earns her resolutions by virtue of a cleverness that has a nearly sculptural quality. (The same phenomenon applies to most of the characters, regulars included.) In “Going for the Gold,” she represents a client targeted by overzealous federal prosecutors who are so intent on rooting out corruption that they brazenly alter exculpatory evidence in front of her. Ultimately, she turns the tables on the feds by using their own wire to catch them admitting to evidence tampering. Yet as edifying as this turnabout is, it’s done in the service of client who has violated both the letter and spirit of the law.
Even at its most desultory, when the show is happily proceeding through legal drama conventions or even high-concept schlock, the execution, from the writing to the acting, resonates with virtuosic polish. From serious to comic, high intrigue to street-level brutishness, The Good Wife’s balance of contradictory impulses bristles with an overflow of creative energy. (That a review like this might mention a show’s title character only once in passing is a testament to the richness that permeates the entire series.) Its take on its own genre injects so much surprise and delight and invigorating wonder that “legal procedural on CBS” has never sounded so sexy.