It went out with a bang, and a whimper. “The Good Wife’s” seven-season run ended with a finale that was so unsettling it directed viewers to a letter by the creators on CBS.com to explain it. But buried beneath the outrage (and really, when does a finale air without at least some outrage these days?) is the realization that once again, “The Good Wife” defied expectations. As it has from the start.
As the pilot opened, a political couple stood in front of a phalanx of reporters. He delivered a mea culpa for cheating, while she looked like a deer caught in the headlights. “It was kind of a shticky premise,” says L.A. Times television critic Mary McNamara. “But the decision to make her such a quietly resonant presence immediately mitigated the fear you might have that we were going to watch a ‘Real Housewives of the Potomac,’ and see some woman go full breakdown.”
That stillness originated with the creators, who sought to honestly represent someone at the bottom of the law firm totem pole. “She could not talk much,” says Robert King. “She was the one listening, she was the one watching all the other people talk. It was amazing early on in the series how little Alicia did talk in strategy sessions. That also made it much more about what you saw on Julianna’s face.”
After a few episodes of watching dailies, they realized that what they saw there was all they needed. “Josh Charles [who played lawyer Will Gardner] said during one of the early seasons, ‘Julianna would have made a great silent film star.’ He was right,” says Michelle King. “She had that level of talent. You can see it on her face; she doesn’t even need the words.”
Premiering in an era of limited series and cable phenoms, “The Good Wife” held its own. “If you asked people, ‘What are the best shows?’ They would say ‘Mad Men,’ ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘The Good Wife,’” McNamara says. For 22 episodes a year, it balanced a procedural case-of-the-week template with the larger story of a woman regaining her footing in a world knocked askew. “At that moment, there were a lot of puzzle solvers and procedurals that were perhaps more focused on the plotting than they were on the characters,” Michelle King says. They reversed that emphasis.
It felt very cutthroat, but it also felt a good tonic for a lot of idealistic TV.
The cases, and the way they were fought, were astonishing in their own right. “It wasn’t about truth, it was about who was the most convincing,” says Robert King. “It felt very cutthroat, but it also felt a good tonic for a lot of idealistic TV.”
It also created a roster of juicy guest and supporting roles for actors including Carrie Preston, Martha Plimpton, F. Murray Abraham, Denis O’Hare and David Hyde Pierce.
“If you think about all the Tony winners, every episode could have been this great musical episode,” Robert King jokes. Michelle KIing adds, “That was pitched every single season in the writers’ room.”
At first, Alicia was more sinned against than sinner, but as the seasons went on, her decisions became more and more questionable. “A lot of shows treat villainy or mendacity as a monstrous thing,” Robert King says. “It’s not. It’s something in all of us.” But she was still beloved. “She’s single-minded in her goal and doesn’t pay terribly close attention to how it affects other people,” says Michelle King. “She is not betraying people for pleasure.”
Maybe we should have taken the hint from the destruction of the law firm’s load-bearing wall in the penultimate episode, prompting the evacuation of a floor of offices. Alicia finally let go of holding up her world and, in doing so, some of the ceiling was bound to fall on her head. Mirroring the beginning of the series, she is alone, hurt and possibly jobless, but she shakes it off, walking resolutely forward.
The Kings have also moved on, branching out to create “BrainDead,” a comic-thriller summer series for CBS about aliens eating the brains of D.C. politicians. (Maybe it sounded farfetched back when they pitched it.) “It’s just trying not to be narrow cast and pigeonholed about what we do next,” says Robert King. But they left the law firm office door open. CBS recently greenlighted a “Good Wife” spinoff starring Christine Baranski for its subscription-only streaming service CBS All Access. Perhaps this time they’ll include a musical episode.