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

The series stars Emmy Award winner Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick, a mother who boldly assumes full responsibility for her family and re-enters the workforce after her husband's very public sex and political corruption scandal lands him in jail. The show airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET.
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.

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