There’s never been a clear precedent for what The Good Wife is. Some of its roots stretch back to L.A. Law, The Practice, and a handful of other legal dramas that have mixed case-of-the-week stories with longer, soapier arcs. The difference is that The Good Wife’s core premise might’ve been relegated to a subplot on one of those other shows—or maybe could’ve been the foundation for a lighter “starting over” dramedy, like Ed or Royal Pains. Instead, creators Robert and Michelle King have been telling a more complex and frequently darker saga, about one woman’s belated coming-of-age.
As Alicia Florrick, star Julianna Margulies has been getting deep into the skin of a well-to-do middle-aged woman, who falls on hard times when her politician husband Peter (Chris Noth) gets mired in a favor-trading accusation and embarrassing sex scandal. And as Alicia’s re-started her long-abandoned legal career with the help of an old college friend, Will Gardner (Josh Charles), the Kings have explored the long-term impact of broken trust, the insidiousness of Chicago-style corruption, and the creeping influence of technology in our professional and personal lives. By the middle of the first season, it was obvious that The Good Wife wasn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill CBS procedural.
It was also obvious early on that the Kings were unafraid to bend convention—at least as much as was feasible. I once asked Vince Gilligan whether he felt free enough on Breaking Bad to change the direction of the show entirely, and have his main characters pack up and become fugitives. Gilligan said no, adding that there were narrative restrictions he had to honor, just as a matter of practicality. The infrastructure of his show was in Albuquerque. His cast had contracts. Any story he wanted to tell you was bound by those necessities.
The Good Wife is set in Chicago and shot in New York, which hasn’t changed from day one to now. And the show has always fundamentally been about Alicia, her family, and the law firm she joined after Peter got busted. But through seven seasons’ worth of stories about that firm, Alicia at various times has been an associate, a partner, a rival, a public defender, and a political candidate.
It’s not that unusual for a TV drama to revamp from season to season. Angel did it, changing its heroes’ base of operations from a detective agency to a law firm, and even altering their primary mission from year-to-year. The Leftovers changed locations entirely between season one and season two; series as different as Desperate Housewives, Battlestar Galactica, and Lost have leapt ahead in their timelines and/or changed their storytelling structure occasionally. But The Good Wife has rarely waited until a finale or a season premiere to blow everything up. It’s evolved constantly. Main characters come and go, and even switch jobs, as events warrant.
If you want to know why The Good Wife was one of the best shows on television throughout its first five seasons, that’s one of the big reasons. And if you want to know why it’s gone off the rails some in seasons six and seven… well, same answer. The Kings haven’t been able to leave well-enough alone, because they built constant change into the very DNA of their show. And after a while, the novelty of novelty has worn off.
I don’t mean to imply that The Good Wife has ever been bad. Even in seasons six and seven, it’s remained consistently entertaining, and often enlightening, with some of the sharpest political commentary and outright satire on network television. Alicia’s fluctuating fortunes have seen her working with and against foreign legal systems, the military, university tribunals, and—in one of the most revealing stretches of this recent season—the dregs of bond court. The Kings have taken advantage of the deep bench of New York-based actors to build an eclectic recurring cast of clients, lawyers, and judges. The Good Wife has used that troupe to create its own complex mythology, and to make a far-reaching study of the soul-crushing compromises we accept every day in the name of justice, security, and simple convenience. Even when the larger plot arcs sputter, on any given week The Good Wife has been capable of delivering provocative, timely subplots about the NSA, or local police overreach, or how we’ve conceded too much of our privacy and personal liberty to corporations.
But the Kings made a narrative choice at the end of season five that in retrospect may have done irreparable damage. The fifth season was arguably The Good Wife’s best—or at least its most eventful. Alicia and her colleague Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) conspired to steal their firm’s more experienced associates, before going into business together. Peter settled into a new job as the Governor of Illinois. Will Gardner was shot and killed. And after bearing a grudge against Alicia for most of the season, her mentor/ex-boss Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) didn’t just bury the hatchet, she agreed to join Alicia and Cary’s fledgling firm. Each episode served up a new jaw-dropper; all the while the writers continued to use a diverse set of tools to construct stories about personal animosity, political pragmatism, and the hard work of entrepreneurship.
Then, just when Diane had joined Florrick/Agos, Alicia seized an opportunity to run for State’s Attorney. That plotline—which would go on to dominate season six—was reasonably fruitful from a thematic perspective, in that it allowed Alicia to experience the ugliness of politics from the inside. (It also allowed The Good Wife to bring in David Hyde Pierce as a rival candidate, which was a terrific addition.) But for once, the rush to “what’s next” was too premature, steamrolling another perfectly good story. The Cary/Alicia/Diane team never got much of a chance to show what it could be before Alicia was largely out of the picture.
This wasn’t a momentary misstep; it’s become the new normal for The Good Wife. Each new direction gives way to another new direction, as characters switch from being allies to enemies seemingly on a whim. The first five Good Wife seasons shifted the power-dynamics a lot too, but whenever Will was warring with Diane, or Cary with Alicia, the show usually let that story play out a while before changing gears. Over the past two seasons, there’s been less and less reason to get invested in any given plot twist, because odds are it’ll twist again in an episode or two.
Moreover, the increasing isolation of Alicia from the other characters’ stories (which really began with her run for office) has made the show feel disjointed. This is the inescapable downside to the Kings’ willingness to shuffle the deck so often. It’s the rare drama—network or cable, prestige or procedural—that would effectively send its heroine off on her own tangential personal journey for the better part of two years. It’s far more common for series to do something like that for a few episodes, and then to restore the status quo. Kudos to the Kings then, for stubbornly defying expectations. But their defiance came at the expense of cohesion. As engaging as Diane, Cary, and Peter can be, whenever their lives aren’t intersecting with Alicia’s, their stories are much less relevant to The Good Wife as a whole.
It’s hard to discuss what may have gone awry with The Good Wife without acknowledging the rumors of a backstage rift between Margulies and Archie Panjabi, who played one of the show’s main characters, investigator Kalinda Sharma, for nearly six seasons. Perhaps there was a chicken-and-egg situation happening in seasons five and six, with Alicia’s storylines diverging more and more from the rest of the cast’s because of personal conflicts. Maybe the Kings weren’t fully in control of what direction their own series took. At times it’s certainly seemed that way, especially as The Good Wife has periodically introduced new love interests for Alicia who don’t stick around (and then one, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who’s hung on for an inexplicably long time).
On the other hand, I’ve never heard anything about The Good Wife’s star being particularly difficult to work with, and by and large I’m on the Kings’ side when it comes to addressing this controversy. There’s no reason why fans have to know what’s happening behind the scenes, and it’s unfair to all concerned even to make guesses. All we can and should do is assess what’s on the screen. But it’d be a lot easier to give everyone involved with The Good Wife the benefit of the doubt if the show hadn’t stumbled so often over the last two years. In any given episode lately, anywhere from half to two-thirds of the running time is given over to subplots that even the writers don’t really seem to care about.
Five great seasons and two hit-and-miss ones is nothing to be ashamed of. When The Good Wife signs off for the last time in a few weeks, it’ll have retained enough goodwill from its heyday that it’ll be legitimately sad to see it go. The quirky stylistic touches, the impossibly accomplished supporting players, and the willingness to tackle the pluses and minuses of modern life—from angles that usually proved the writers were up-to-date, and knew the real underlying issues behind the day’s headlines—can’t be fully matched by any other drama currently on the air.
But for a while, the show did all that while also telling one long, winding story as involving and surprising as anything on television. Whatever the reasons, it’s been disappointing to see that story sputter. For a time, The Good Wife could make a strong case for itself as one of the great cultural achievements of the past decade. But the closing argument hasn’t been so persuasive.