Critic’s Notebook: Eight reasons ‘The Good Wife’ and ‘Modern Family’ are practically perfect

Giving a television show a glowing review is, essentially, an act of hope. Unlike critics of other genres, those of us reviewing television see only a portion of what is a continually evolving work of art.

Shows that have terrific pilots often stumble in second and third episodes, while shows with terrible pilots can right themselves. Either way, it isn’t until the fifth or sixth episode that you really know what you’re getting, though even then there is always room for miraculous improvement and terrible mistakes. So, it’s a leap of faith when a television critic reaches into the box marked “superlatives.”

In many ways, “Modern Family” and “The Good Wife” are apples and oranges, but they both have many of the attributes that help shows take flight and soar.

Eight Reasons Why “The Good Wife” and “Modern Family” Are Practically Perfect in Every Way:

1. Casting: Both shows started with a solid, recognizable, talented performer — Julianna Margulies as betrayed wife-lawyer Alicia Florrick in “The Good Wife,” Ed O’Neill as prickly paterfamilias Jay Pritchett in “Modern Family” — in roles that were similar but not identical to what they were known for. Then, and most important, the creators cast every other character with just as much care and attention to detail. Archie Panjabi, Chris Noth, Christine Baranski, Josh Charles — when Alan Cumming joined “The Good Wife’s” cast late in the season, there was a chance the end credits would simply go super-nova. Likewise, “Modern Family” gives us Ty Burrell, Julie Bowen, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet and the comedic revelation (to American audiences anyway) that is Sofia Vergara. When Fred Willard shows up as Phil’s dad and Shelley Long as Jay’s ex-wife, you know, for a fact, that God watches television.

2. Writing: Some will argue that comedy is harder to write than drama, but that’s just the kind of fire and ice debate that skirts the obvious. No matter the genre, a great television show is the most difficult thing in the world to write because there are so many moving parts and, with any luck, the story goes on for years. “Modern Family’s” Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd and “The Good Wife’s” Michelle and Robert King all began with character. Each show follows a group of complicated and fully realized human beings working through interesting immediate issues under a canopy of über-narrative. In both cases, the big picture is the inevitable, but at times impossible, needs of — and need for — family.

3. Acting: (See Reason 1.) It is very unusual to have two casts this large and have no weak links. Not one weak link. Equally astonishing, no one appears to be learning on the job, which is almost never the case with new shows. Every single member of each cast deserves an Emmy for something.

4. Directing: The Directors Guild sometimes loses its patience with TV critics because it feels we don’t credit the directors enough. In our defense, while each show usually has one or two creators-showrunners who oversee the writing staff, it can have a string of directors. “The Good Wife” had 18 this season, while “Modern Family” had eight — including Jason Winer, who directed 13 episodes — and here’s to them because you don’t get great shows without great direction.

5. Kids: Both shows are notable for featuring children who are recognizable as children, as opposed to vehicles for exposition, wisecracking robots or Skinnerian emotional cues. On “The Good Wife,” Zach and Grace Florrick (Makenzie Vega and Graham Phillips) are by turns sullen and insightful, showing both teenage narcissism and strength under pressure. “Modern Family’s” Dunphy brood — Haley (Sarah Hyland), Alex (Ariel Winter) and Luke (Nolan Gould) — and their young step-uncle, Manny Delgado (Rico Rodriguez), are a bit more archetypal — popular teen, brainy tween, dense but loveable kid and, well, the preternaturally mature Manny defies description — but they remain people you might know, and not just from TV.

6. Art direction: A good look can make or break a show. “The Good Wife” is more interior — it’s set in Chicago, but it could be any big city — and its sets are moody and soothing as needed. “Modern Family,” meanwhile, is bright and airy, and if everyone involved is upscale SoCal, at least they’re recognizably SoCal. (Also, three cheers for the television debut of The Grove.)

7. The judges: OK, this one applies only to “The Good Wife,” but honestly — Joanna Gleason, Peter Riegert, Denis O’Hare — in the entire history of the courtroom drama, has there ever been a better revolving cast of judges? No, there has not.

8. A reliance on story and character over plot device, quirkiness and gratuitous anything: Both shows are smart without being snarky, realistic about the limitations of the human soul without being jaded, carefully plotted without being overly clever. Sex is present but not exploited, marriage is respected but not revered and love, though in the end binding, is never reduced to syrup. What violence there is in “The Good Wife” is mostly psychological and/or off-screen. So, not only are these shows artful and exciting, but they’re also family-friendly (though obviously, the nature and time slot of “The Good Wife” makes it PG-13). Which may just tip them into the “completely perfect” category.