Television for Adults

The Good Wife is cynical, thrilling, and grown-up. It’s also TV’s best drama.

Still courtesy of CBS
Alicia (Julianna Margulies) in The Good Wife. Over the seasons she has become more comfortable existing within the show’s ethical no man’s land.

Still courtesy of CBS

CBS’s The Good Wife begins its sixth season on Sunday night in almost unheard of shape for a drama heading into the latter stages of middle age. By Seasons 7 or 8, most series are thinking about retirement, or ought to be. Typically they’ve been flagging for years, the vim and vigor of their youth long since mellowed. But The Good Wife does not know from flagging. As it begins its sixth season, it is sharper than it has ever been, the ageless, wiry athlete sprinting circles around other dramas, tacitly talking trash. “Anything you can do, I can do 22 times a year, without cursing, without much violence, and without a hoity-toity cable-TV address,” it winks, as it runs by in some impeccably tailored workout gear. The Good Wife, a delectable, invigorating series of unprecedented depth and cynicism, is the best drama on TV.

The series began as the tale of a sort of fictional Silda Spitzer. Alicia Florrick (Juliana Marguilies), a woman who had backseated her career to be a mother and political wife, became one of the central subjects of a scandal when her husband, Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), the Illinois state’s attorney, hired a prostitute with state funds. Alicia, her husband disgraced and in jail, her marriage in shambles, went back to work as a lawyer at Lockhart Gardner, a high-powered Chicago firm run by an old law-school classmate, Will Gardner (Josh Charles), and the intimidating Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski). While the early seasons of the show focused on the immediate aftermath of the scandal and Alicia’s marriage—which still exists in some form because she and Peter never divorced—the long arc of the series has traced Alicia’s initiation into the ways and means of power.

The Good Wife understands power as both a more subtle and insidious force than series like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad do. On those much-beloved, much-acclaimed series, power corrupts grotesquely. On The Good Wife, it corrupts elegantly. The characters on The Good Wife are lawyers, not mob bosses or meth dealers, and while their behavior often skirts the unethical, it exists largely within the bounds of acceptable—or at least not easily actionable—behavior. On The Good Wife, flexible morals are not the hallmark of men living ultra-violent, grandiose lives: They belong to everyone. On The Good Wife the use and abuse of power is not so malignant that it destroys itself. It is so omnipresent that it can never be destroyed.

Much to the detriment of The Good Wife’s prestige, it is, at least in part, a procedural.

Every week, there is at least one case to be tried, and usually more than one. But The Good Wife is to the case-of-the-week format as cheese is to Cheez Whiz: Without a label, you wouldn’t know they were supposed to be the same thing. It treats its cases with a playfulness, a rigor, and a curiosity that renders nearly all other procedurals obvious, lazy, and plodding by comparison. While most procedurals muck around in such well-established areas of TV law that viewers at home can not only predict outcomes, but voice objections, The Good Wife luxuriates in newfangled, less predictable arenas. The show takes on its share of murders (Lockhart Gardner has a habit of defending guilty killers) but more often focuses on technology-based cases that are too complicated, and too current, to conform to such simple-minded questions as “Who did it?” In The Good Wife the cases are as twisted and intelligent as the people prosecuting them.

The Good Wife sometimes feels as if it was proceeding at 1½-times regular speed. The show is a drama, but it has an air of the screwball about it: the velocity; the quips; the large recurring cast of criminals, judges, and lawyers who are almost all, fundamentally, comedic players; the simultaneously frustrating and hilarious accrual of roadblocks, details, and bureaucratic loopholes involved in even the smallest case. The Good Wife delivers the genre thrills of the courtroom at the highest possible level—the strategy, the objections, the last minute revelations—but while you are gobbling down delightful set pieces, the show salts them with shards of glass. The cases may resolve in an emotionally satisfying way, with the protagonists winning, but who knows about the good guys, if such a category even exists.

Alicia, Diane, and their colleagues, now spread over multiple practices, have a hold on our sympathy (give or take the unctuous, brilliant David Lee, played by Zach Grenier), but not so nearly as solid a relationship with morality. Everyone, Alicia included, compromises, and so is, to greater and lesser extents, compromised. To take just the latest example: In the first episode of the new season, a lawyer is arrested, seemingly because one of his clients is a drug lord. The Illinois state’s attorney is using the lawyer, harassing him, jailing him, in the hopes that he will give them leverage against the drug lord. Watching, our sympathies are entirely with the lawyer, powerless in an increasingly Kafkaesque situation, bullied by more powerful forces—but that’s only because viewers of The Good Wife have long since checked their qualms about lawyers taking millions in drug money. Lockhart Gardner was doing it for years.

In this instance, we in the audience, like the characters on screen, have accommodated ourselves to the necessities, the vagaries, the moral uncertainties of power—you do what you have to do to get the money. But The Good Wife does not simply condemn its characters for this ethical lapse. It is too cynical (or is it too realistic?) to insist that the way to survive, to thrive, is to always to do good—as if, among other things, good were so easy to define. In an essay last week for the New York Times Magazine, A.O. Scott wrote about the death of adulthood in popular culture. But the adult is alive and well on The Good Wife, where “What should you do?” is neither an easier nor more sensical a question than “Who did it?”

Over the years, Alicia has become more comfortable existing within the show’s ethical no man’s land. Alicia, who began the series as the quintessential “good wife,” popularly known as “Saint Alicia,” is more at ease with power and its shadier applications. Last season, she left Lockhart Gardner to start her own firm, a move that was understood as a personal betrayal by Will, the man who had given her a job when no one else would. To ensure that her new firm survived, Alicia implicitly permitted her husband Peter, now governor of Illinois, to pressure an all-important client into staying with Alicia’s fledgling operation, rather than returning to Lockhart Gardner. The Good Wife is too clear-eyed for this particular lapse to have resulted in any meaningful blowback. Alicia secured her firm’s future by stepping slightly over the line. Sometimes—often, even—that’s how things get done.

As Alicia has become more like the two men in her life—Peter and the late Will, charming hustlers comfortable with bending and breaking rules to their own ends—she has become more efficient, more skilled, more savvy, a better, fiercer lawyer and advocate. This transformation is unsettling precisely because of its lack of ill consequences. Alicia has sacrificed some of her morality, some of her conscience, but who, exactly, is worse off? At the end of last season, Eli Gold (Alan Cumming), Peter’s chief of staff asked Alicia to run for state’s attorney. If Alicia’s induction into the darker side of power makes her more like a typical politician than she once was, it will also make her a more capable politician than she once would have been. Are voters worse off?

The Good Wife sees power so clearly that it makes its application look like what it must often be: fun. That’s how a show as fundamentally cynical as The Good Wife can be such a blast to watch. Power, like most of the vices available only to adults, can be thrilling, sexy. The Good Wife is a kind of advertisement for adulthood, where full grown men and women can avail themselves not only of power, but great clothes, glisteningly cold martinis, attractive sexual partners, big salaries, and jobs that invigorate and stimulate them completely. Perhaps the biggest fantasy of The Good Wife is that lawyers do no paperwork—they just go from fascinating case to fascinating case, testing their minds and their wits, turned on by their intellectual pursuits every day.

Power, on this show, is appealing. It makes those who have it appealing. And this simple but potent formulation is enough to fill its world with all the moral impasses, impossible choices, and slippery slopes a TV show could ever need. Its extremely smart characters regularly cross the line, not because they are monsters, but because they are human. There is no show on TV with a darker message than that.