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'The Good Wife': A show about ambiguity and the lost art of the long story arc

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2011; 10:57 AM

"The Good Wife," CBS's Tuesday night legal drama that is now midway through an addictive and excellent second season, is one of those rare shows that becomes quietly totemic for its loyal viewers, something we carry around but don't talk about.

It subsists quite well on a tiny fraction of the hip hype and thinky deconstructionist recaps that many premium cable dramas generate as a matter of course. Hardly anybody tweets new thoughts about "The Good Wife," which draws about 12 million viewers a week. It's just the good show.

So let's talk about it. Should Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) unshackle herself from the post-scandal, brave-faced obligations of her dutiful, Silda Spitzer-like political wifehood to find true love with Will Gardner (Josh Charles) at the law firm where she is an overworked junior associate?

In a way, her love life is the least of our worries, on a show that has somehow managed to update and make mainstream the lost art of the long story arc. It asks you to remember what happened a few episodes - or 30 episodes - ago. It's a network show for the last few of us who can do that.

"The Good Wife" was born from an obvious pitch: The stoic spouse of one of those politicians who can't keep his pants zipped - what goes through her mind during the media circus that ensues?

Instead of becoming a story about a bitter divorce and a tell-almost-all book contract, "The Good Wife," created by husband-wife team Robert and Michelle King, took seriously the theme of reinvention and self-reliance, as told through the eyes of a woman who was able to look away from her own press (imagine!). Right away, Alicia's choices left behind the parallels to headlines and entered the realm of satisfying fiction. Her husband (Chris Noth), the state's attorney in Chicago, went to prison; to support her two teenagers, Alicia fell back on her law degree.

Thus the show magically soothes an upper-middle-class recessionary qualm about the general lack of a Plan B for people with advanced degrees: Can you find a job after taking a long break in your career to raise kids?

Unlike thousands of recent and still unemployed law-school grads in the real world, Alicia was immediately hired, thanks to connections - namely Will Gardner, with whom Alicia went to law school at Georgetown.

The job she got was equally make-believe, sending her promptly into television's warp-speed concept of what a lawyer does and how the court system works. In Alicia's world, cases come to trial and receive a verdict before hour's end. Rather than invite scoff and scorn, I'd wager that "The Good Wife" is raptly watched by members of the bar.

"The Good Wife" owes most of its ratings to decades of court procedural dramas and fictional lawyers who predate Alicia, as far back as Perry Mason. The caseload is what keeps the show humming along in a way that comforts CBS's ideal audience, which likes fast DNA results and security-cam bombshells.

"The Good Wife" reminds me at times of the long-forgotten "L.A. Law" (and of rushing home to watch it, only to find that the VCR wasn't programmed), taking its sense of saga as importantly as it takes its cockamamie courtroom antics and characters.

I can barely recall any of the cases in "L.A. Law," save for a dim recollection of a witness on the stand who had Tourette's syndrome, but I'll never forget Rosalind Shays plunging down the elevator shaft outside the McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney & Kuzak lobby. (Twenty-two TV seasons ago!)

"The Good Wife" returns us to that same desperate sense of life at the teetering law firm, leavened with the occasional oddball. Rather than fall back on high jinks (in the style of "Ally McBeal" or even "Boston Legal"), the show feeds on deadly serious conflict and deceit- now between Will and Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), as they alternately aid and thwart a possible takeover by a new partner (Michael Ealy).

There is also the Spy vs. Spy-like tussle between the firm's rule-bending investigators, the sexually ambiguous Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi, who won an Emmy last year for the role) and shifty newcomer Blake Calamar (Scott Porter). Although some fans enjoy the spite and spark between the two, I think this storyline has somehow lessened the work Panjabi and the writers initially put into Kalinda's character.

So, there's all that - and did we mention Alicia's meddlesome mother-in-law (Mary Beth Peil); or her teenage son and daughter (Graham Phillips and Makenzie Vega), who cause fits of viewer anxiety every time they venture onto Facebook?

Television shows are busier than ever, and "The Good Wife" is sometimes much too busy in its attempt to remain essentially CBS-like to its core and adhere to courtroom melodrama and murdered pretty people. Its plots are a swirl of BlackBerry alerts and YouTube shockers; it's all surreptitious meetings with court clerks and the sound of tires peeling out in parking garages. The usual clatter.

That is why, at least once an episode, Alicia simply stares off into space for a moment.

This happens to be Margulies's lasting contribution to her craft. It might be her only real move. Those crystalline eyes gaze out on all that corrupt Chicago gray. (It always seems to be late fall in Florrickland.)

Of all the people on television who are good at staring off into space, including the entire cast of "Mad Men,"Alicia's stares are the most . . . forlorn?

Yes, but also the most determined. Within these brief stares, "The Good Wife" gets down to the true work of illuminating life's biggies - sex, gender, politics, lawyers, crime, teenagers getting in trouble with texts and videos - without ever seeming as if it's trying to be about the biggies. It allows Alicia one or two scenes of moral doubt per episode and no more - the beauty is in all the ambiguity around her.

But moral cloudiness won't work for everyone - including former Bush administration defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was apparently on the show's wish list for frequent cameo guest stars, which in past episodes included Vernon Jordan and "iCarly's" Miranda Cosgrove.

Producers hoped Rumsfeld might like to play a witness in a lawsuit involving aggressive interrogation techniques. Though Rumsfeld could use the buzz (his memoir is about to come out) the negotiations never started, according to the Associated Press. A spokesman for Rumsfeld described the plot to AP as "so fraught with legal ramifications" that it ended right there. He'd love to play another part, the aide said. Perhaps on a topic less murky?

Good luck finding a storyline in "The Good Wife" that is not ambiguous. At its core, it's a show about how everyone lies.

Even Alicia succumbs to the gray zone. Early this season, in what was perhaps one of the few moments that "The Good Wife" has registered amid pop culture's noise, Alicia surprised us all and had sex against the bathroom sink with her husband. She had just gotten home from a particularly sharp afternoon in court, which Peter had watched from the gallery, and it turned him on. He crept up behind her. She wanted it and she perhaps also didn't. They made love while the telltale trumpeted theme to NPR's "All Things Considered" droned on a radio in the background.

It was as if "The Good Wife" had finally winked at the core demographic lurking within its 12 million loyalists: vaguely unhappy people who listen to NPR. "The Good Wife" is the compelling but only just slightly literary mystery novel stored in the Kindle sitting in someone's NPR pledge-drive tote bag.

In fact, I'm surprised there aren't high-end Alicia Florrick tote bags, carried on the Blue and Orange Lines by legions of women in crisp suits and expensively comfortable courtroom heels, with belted trenchcoats and blown-flat hair. All staring off into space, looking for ways to discern the truth, if it exists.

The Good Wife (one hour) airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on CBS. Because of Tuesday's State of the Union address, new episodes resume Feb. 1.

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