Jace Lacob, the Televisionary, did this excellent interview with the creators of The Good Wife, and I see that they, too, put some of the blame on the title for the show’s soft ratings:
“If there was anything we could go back and reverse, it would be the title,” said Robert King. “I understand why some shows just name the show after the character. How do you find something that doesn’t just scream, ‘oh, this is a procedural,’ or ‘this is some kind of wanky feminine drama’? I don’t think we escaped that. Really, I think the title has a tendency to make men think, ‘Well, here’s the menstruation hour.'”
Well, I don’t really agree with that either, but I’m certainly rooting for more people to discover the show, which continues to do interesting things that even a good cable show might not do, at least not in the same exact way. (Restricted to 10-13 episodes, a cable show would not have the luxury of letting the characters’ lives unfold this gradually, and it wouldn’t be able to tinker as much with its approach in the middle of the season.) The combination of personal stories with larger social and political issues is a major goal of drama, but in practice, most shows come down heavily on one side or the other: either they’re mostly about the characters with the bigger stuff as a backdrop, or they’re about larger issues (ripped-from-the-headlines stories about guest characters) with the characterizations providing atmosphere.
Good Wife is trying to do both and still more, as a mashup of procedural, serial, law show, politics show, and character study. That “full-course meal” aspect of the show means that the episodes can a little bit different from each other, just by putting different emphasis on different parts of the mix. It’s like several different kinds of conventional shows have been skilfully combined to produce an unconventional show. And that’s an important advantage of the modern multi-story structure that most modern shows (broadcast and cable) use, where you have a procedural plot involving guest stars and character-based plots and ongoing arcs jockeying for position in the same 42 minutes. There are all kinds of reason why this structure has developed, including the need to find something for a large cast to do, but a creative reason for it is that a show can avoid predictability by changing the way these different story elements are combined, the way they’re spaced out, or what each story contributes tonally to this week’s episode.
The discussion of the what the show gets away with, notably the instantly notorious “NPR” scene, is a reminder of an odd paradox: CBS, the most conventional network, is the one that pushes the boundaries the most in terms of content. They already helped increase the amount of gore you could show (as long as the person is already dead) and more recently they’ve been upping the amount of sexual frankness — remember how NBC wouldn’t let Seinfeld say the word “masturbation?” Now every single one of the CBS comedies talks about it, sometimes repeatedly. Those shows do it mostly for cheap laughs; again, it seems like the Kings have cleverly figured out how to use the conventions of their own network for something different than the other shows on the same network.
And in a final paradox, the CBS procedural that is the most critically-acclaimed and (sort of) hip is the one that is the oldest-skewing — by some measurements the oldest-skewing scripted show on TV. I don’t think it should come as a surprise to me that a show like this should skew old, but somehow it does; there’s a stereotype that older viewers are old-fashioned or prudish, but it’s not really backed up by the numbers. Anecdotally, I find there’s a certain amount of overlap between HBO and CBS audiences — the older central characters, the frequent quiet spots in between the spectacular sequences, and the lack of specific focus on young viewers (a pay channel doesn’t care how old its viewers are, and CBS has decided to play for the most possible total viewers) mean that someone who watches Boardwalk Empire might well also want to watch the combination of personal stories and politics on Good Wife.