Getting better all the time
The Good Wife, 2014-5 (seasons 5 and 6)
Review by Peter Hulm
The best TV drama series can change the way we look at society. This distinguishes The Wire from Homeland or Ray Donavan and certainly from something like Suits or Covert Affairs. The Good Wife forces us to take a different look not just at politics and the law as a practice but also at women's sexual life, and at family values (in the non-political sense) as a tyrannical tool of personal power.
You can make a similar argument about Shakespeare, of course, let alone the campaigning purposes of Henrik Ibsen. Macbeth to me seems not so much about witchcraft and the corruption of a good man as about the dangers of failing to support the institutions of the state and recognizing the difference between nobility and responsible leadership — a recurrent theme of Shakespeare's plays. Though hardly a revolutionary propagandist, he seemed exceedingly sensitive to the threats facing Elizabethan society from within.
It has to be admitted that GW uses the farcical convention of 'flat' (one-note) characters to achieve many of its effects. Nor does it regularly expand the range of television as was common earlier in ER, inventor of the walk-and-talk style of TV scene direction with a portable camera (perfected as a style by West Wing.
It cannot claim to be embedded in its sense of community like The Third Watch (1999-2005), which broadcast interviews by its cast with the New York police, ambulance staff and firefighters they portrayed, less than a month after 9/11.
GW has done nothing as ambitious as the 99th Third Watch episode, A Call for Help. The apparent filming in one shot superbly captures the tension of police officers going into an unknown area where no-one wants to help them.
Nevertheless, The Good Wife demonstrates that without pyrotechnics or deep characterization, a television series can use the conventions of mass television to pose serious questions about issues facing modern society.
The standard shot might be a long shot into someone's office from near-floor level or a puzzled/enigmatic actor's face (Josh Charles, Archie Punjabi, Matt Czuchry and Julianna Margulies). But the writing is always sharp (and rarely rhetorical). The scenes are all well-shaped to deliver an unexpected answer to the question they pose at their beginning. Robert and Michelle King have a knack for finishing episodes with a surprise.
Honesty in politics
Its political theme, the most obvious and the original spur for the series, continually challenges presumptions about what is authentic in politics. For example, in season 6, running for state's attorney, Alicia Florrick (Juliana Margulies) goes to help out at a soup kitchen and finds a mocking photo of herself on the Internet. She has to fake a visit as a photo-opportunity for the press in order to correct the impression that she is just exploiting her concern.
A recurring issue is her determination to declare herself in the U.S. as an atheist despite running for political office. Her God-worshipping daughter understands her but she is forced to tell a television interviewer she is struggling with the question.
Likewise, at the end of season six, her estranged husband (Chris Noth), now Governor, decides to run for President so that he can put himself into position to be Vice-President. The Good Wife has become an honourable TV equivalent of Gore Vidal's educational historical fictions about politics.
Technology and law
Its pioneering dramatization of techological issues has been widely noted and on this site.
Its view of the law has got sharper with each season. In 6 we learn from Alicia, watching To Kill a Mockingbird with her daughter, that she soon realized the law was "not about making speeches that change people's minds". She later confesses to naivety in "looking at the law as something good".
Sure, the manoeuvrings inside the law firms with which she has associated have shown viewers what a devious bunch lawyers can be. But until then the series seemed built on the premise that Alicia was trying to find a way to do good within the law, as distinct from just doing the best she could.
Equally frightening, in season 6 we see the young lawyer Cary Agos (Czuchry) arrested, thrown into prison and facing years of incarceration as part of a ploy to force him to betray a drug lord he has defended in court.
Alicia the woman and her mother-in-law
Season six also gave us the first full picture of Alicia's sexual being. In episode 14 (Mind's Eye) written by the creators, she is overwhelmed by sexual longing for the lover killed in season 5 (Charles) and she cannot shake off her memories or fantasies, even when she takes to the streets. Not coincidentally, this is also the most adventurously filmed of the episodes.
In its way, this rivals the decision to give an entire 30-minute episode of a British soap as popular as GW, East Enders, to one character in January 2008 (23 years after launch). Dot Cotton (June Brown) spoke into a tape recorder for her six husband and realizing what she really felt about him coming back to live with her as an invalid.
Both episodes confronted women's feelings in a way that are rarely acknowledged in commercial television.
Critics have rightly singled out almost everyone in the cast for praise but one of cleverest performances that sociologists should notice comes from Mary Beth Bell as the husband's mother. The character uses family values and domestic virtue as an instrument of tyranny and interference in her daughter-in-law's life. Yet we are never in doubt that she considers herself a loving, protective mother and Alicia a spoiled and self-indulgent woman who, unlike her, does not know how to ignore her husband's infidelities.