In February, CBS announced that it would be pulling the plug on The Good Wife after seven seasons. The long-running legal procedural from creators Robert and Michelle King was widely expected to hang up its robe at the end of this year, as the Kings are set to launch a new program on the network next fall (it’s a Washington satire about extraterrestrials who feast on the brains of politicians). The show’s quality declined in recent years, but The Good Wife remained the finest drama on network television. It was a female-led answer to TV’s testosterone-heavy 21st-century Golden Age, dominated by the male antiheroes of Breaking Bad and Mad Men.
One widely overlooked aspect of the program’s success wasn’t just that it was home to some of television’s most complex female characters, but that The Good Wife was one of the queerest shows on TV. While shows like Glee, Orange Is The New Black, or Transparent might be more overtly LGBT-oriented, what makes The Good Wife special is that the show radically rewrote the rules of identity politics. While Glee treated sexuality as a “very special episode” subject, The Good Wife was refreshingly post-queer, never allowing its characters or the actors that played them to be bound by labels.
After debuting in 2009, the show was credited for introducing the first queer South Asian character in television history—Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi), the stoic investigator who strikes up a tentative friendship with Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies). Outside of her work at Lockhart/Gardner, where Alicia lands a job as a first-year associate following her husband Peter’s imprisonment, viewers initially know little about Kalinda. We know she’s in her mid-20s, wears knee-high boots and leather jackets, and sports an unplaceable accent. Panjabi is British, but Kalinda Sharma is a mystery.
When it comes to Kalinda’s personal life, The Good Wife got off on being withholding. When Alicia first asks Kalinda about her sexuality while sharing a drink after work, she responds, “I’m private.” Earlier in the show’s first season, she flirts with Lana Delaney (Jill Flint), a comely FBI agent who doesn’t understand why Kalinda has “sex with men.” Kalinda explains, “I don’t distinguish… Italian, Mexican, Thai—why does one choose one food over the other?” In another scene, a rival investigator (Scott Porter) asserts that Kalinda likes “women more than men.” She shrugs, “Sometimes. Depends.”
To dismiss these questions was not a matter of evading the character’s orientation, but a crucial part of it. Throughout The Good Wife, other characters attempted to place Kalinda into a box (and many fans refer to her as “bisexual”), but she continually resists easy categorization. After all, the defining feature of her romantic relationships isn’t who she sleeps with but that she’s as elusive about commitment as she is about labeling. When she and upstart attorney Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) begin dating during the show’s sixth season, he repeatedly refers to her as his “girlfriend.” However, Kalinda reminds him that she has no plans to be exclusive, with Cary or anyone else. She complicates societal notions of monogamy and homonormativity in ways that are extremely powerful.
But The Good Wife doesn’t always handle Kalinda’s sexual detachment with grace. In one of the show’s worst and most infamous subplots, the writers attempt to explain away her penchant for privacy as the result of an abusive relationship: She’s not liberated, she’s scared. The fourth season introduced Nick Savarese (Marc Warren), a truck magnate who happens to be Kalinda’s domineering ex-husband. Their relationship is both tense and violent, with fights that unfold like foreplay. The plotline was quickly scrapped due to fan outcry—because it threatened to undo everything that was great about Kalinda.
At her best, Kalinda’s elusive sexuality transcended tired tropes about “slutty bisexuals” because her particularities were in service of character first, rather than reducing them to a plot device. As June Thomas wrote in Slate, “The people she had sex with seemed as confused as the viewers about Kalinda’s feelings.” Throughout their on-and-off relationship, Lana continually becomes frustrated with her inability to read Kalinda or decipher her motives. Is Kalinda trying to get information or genuinely interested? Lana memorably confronted her on the subject: “I chased you for two years and nothing. What? Now you’re into me?”
The show’s emphasis on character first was likewise illustrated in its continued mission to cast openly LGBT stars in a variety of roles throughout the show, playing characters who are straight, presumably heterosexual, or whose sexualities are never mentioned. In fact, The Good Wife functioned as an unofficial halfway house for out actors—including Nathan Lane, John Benjamin Hickey, T.R. Knight, Denis O’Hare, Michael Urie, Mo Rocca, Jonathan Groff, David Hyde Pierce, and Alan Cumming. Not a single one plays an overtly queer character. Cumming, who identifies as bisexual, has spent seven seasons on the show as Eli Gold, who works as Peter Florrick’s gubernatorial campaign manager and later chief of staff. Gold was married to a woman (Parker Posey) and only expresses romantic interest in women. Lane guest starred as Clarke Hayden, an auditor assigned to Lockhart/Gardner who becomes a lawyer at Alicia’s firm. His sexuality is never deemed all that important, so it isn’t brought up. In fact, the most prominent recurring gay character is played by a straight actor: Dallas Robert frequently appears on the show as Alicia’s brother. Archie Panjabi is likewise heterosexual.
The show’s consistent sexuality swap is a necessary answer to the common misconception about gay actors: Audiences won’t take them seriously in straight roles. In 2010, former Newsweek writer Ramin Setoodeh trashed the Broadway revival of Promises, Promises, arguing that former Will & Grace actor Sean Hayes was “too queeny” to play someone the audience is expected to believe is in love with Kristin Chenoweth. “[I]t’s weird seeing Hayes play straight,” Setoodeh wrote. “He comes off as wooden and insincere, as if he’s trying to hide something, which of course he is.”
Critics might have been outraged that Setoodeh would assert that it’s rare for gay actors to “pull off the trick” of playing heterosexual—even though Heath Ledger did just fine at performing the reverse in Brokeback Mountain—but his views are hardly unique. The year before the Newsweek controversy, Rupert Everett made similar comments to The Guardian, advising young gay actors to stay in the closet. In 2015, Matt Damon reiterated the same argument. “I think you’re a better actor the less people know about you, period,” he infamously said. “And sexuality is a huge part of that. Whether you’re straight or gay, people shouldn’t know anything about your sexuality because that’s one of the mysteries that you should be able to play.”
But if Kalinda is any indication, those mysteries are best saved for the characters themselves. What makes a character like Kalinda Sharma compelling isn’t what we know about Panjabi’s and Kalinda’s sexuality (or maybe don’t) but how those tensions are integrated into the character. Similarly, Alan Cumming’s real-life queerness only makes Eli Gold more fascinating: He’s clearly based off the coarse Rahm Emanuel, the former chief of staff to Barack Obama who’s the current mayor of Chicago. But despite Gold’s alpha dog, “Look, I know curse words” shtick, Cumming adds an undercurrent of vulnerability to his character.
The fact that actors inherently hide something isn’t a detriment: It’s how dramas build tension and complexity, whether that’s in front of or behind the camera. After Panjabi left The Good Wife in the sixth season, rumors circulated that her departure was due to a falling-out with Margulies. Their characters hadn’t appeared in a scene together in two seasons, and a final drink between the two was spliced together in green screen. Although Margulies offered a telling non-answer— “There’s no animosity on my part”—and insisted Archie Panjabi was merely busy shooting BBC’s The Fall, Panjabi responded that her show wasn’t in production at the time. “I was in New York, ready to film the scene,” she said on Twitter.
While many argued this was a distraction from the show—knowing that its female leads might hate each other in real life—there was something extremely fitting about the alleged feud. The Good Wife spent seasons building a world that takes place behind closed doors, through secret phone calls and backroom deals. It’s a show about what is unsaid or barely whispered, whether that’s a long-simmering affair with a coworker, its characters’ labyrinthine sexualities, or the hidden politics behind the scenes. If Kalinda was an unsolvable riddle, she was the perfect symbol for The Good Wife itself.