How did The Good Wife become a darling of the critics when it’s what critics are supposed to hate? Focusing on an older-than-usual junior lawyer (played by ER’s Julianna Margulies) whose husband (Chris Noth) is a disgraced Eliot Spitzer-style state political figure, the show is basically a courtroom drama where murders are solved in an hour. Noel Murray, who writes the TV column “A Very Special Episode” for the entertainment website The AV Club, admitted to Maclean’s that “there’s very little about The Good Wife that would grab the high-end TV-watcher right away.” Yet the show, whose first season ends May 25 on Global, has appeal for people who usually prefer Lost or other more complex shows. Not every critic goes as far as Entertainment Weekly, which proclaimed it “the best show on television,” but they mostly agree with Canadian critic Myles McNutt of the blog Cultural Learnings, who called it “exactly what fans of dramatic television should be looking for.” Who knew a lawyer show with a middle-aged cast would fit that description?
Created by the husband-and-wife team of Robert and Michelle King (whose last show was the flop In Justice), The Good Wife mostly follows the procedural formula of its network, CBS. Every episode has a crime story, intercut with scenes about the lawyers’ personal lives. Alicia (Margulies) usually investigates a mildly topical case while dealing with family problems and her attraction to her firm’s cute, mildly unprincipled partner (Josh Charles). And like CSI or Cold Case, it courts older viewers by reminding them that kids are up to no good: one recent episode included a subplot about the power of Twitter to spread ugly rumours. In outline, there’s nothing to distinguish it from CBS’s critically loathed new drama Miami Medical, except that show has doctors, not lawyers.
But The Good Wife has things going for it that most procedurals don’t, like a refusal to descend into easy, black-and-white morality. The relationship between Alicia and her husband, Murray notes, “isn’t a hero-and-villain kind of relationship.” The show portrays him as a hypocrite and shows his wife and children struggling with their feelings about him, but at the same time, it tries to make us feel as awkward as he does when he’s told the rules of his house arrest. The writers also try to add complexity to the internal politics of the law office; the firm’s liberal feminist senior partner (Christine Baranski) isn’t always sympathetic to Margulies’s attempts to get ahead in a man’s world, and the reasons for taking cases—Charles’s character accepts a dubious case out of pride and the firm’s financial distress—are sometimes given almost as much screen time as the crime-solving.
Even the acting seems a bit different from other procedurals, which tend to go for loud or obvious performances. Baranski, who won Emmys for her over-the-top role on the sitcom Cybill, mostly underplays her scenes. Likewise, while Margulies often overacted on her last show, Canterbury’s Law, she holds back as Alicia, so that big moments—like a scene where she watches one of her husband’s mistresses badmouth her on a talk show (“I think she looks frigid”)—have more impact.
Even the case-of-the-week format, which some critics thought would hold the show back (Black Book magazine sneered that CBS viewers can’t handle “complicated plots”), has been incorporated into this restrained approach. Murray notes that the cases are used by the writers to comment on issues faced by the characters, like “ ‘trust’ or ‘lies’ or ‘public opinion.’ ” And because the cases are fairly realistic—sometimes ending Law and Order style, with unsatisfying verdicts—it keeps the episodes from being soapy. “Every time the show tries to veer into melodramatic territory,” McNutt wrote, “there’s a case that forces them to remain grounded.”
Still, not every viewer can get past the formula to see the ambitions underneath; Murray says that some people feel “like a show couldn’t be any good if it’s not tightly serialized.” And there are signs that its subtlety might not last, like the addition of Alan Cumming, adopting a U.S. accent as a Rahm Emanuel-style political operative; he’s a more cartoonish character than the others, suggesting that things might get sillier when he becomes a regular next season. But for now, what continues to surprise critics is that a show can make all these formula elements seem un-formulaic. Or, as Murray puts it, there’s room on TV for a sophisticated show “for people who don’t mind conventions.”