How ‘The Good Wife’ created TV’s New Woman
Whether you credit “The Sopranos,” “The Shield,” “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad,” TV’s recent renaissance, much like the actual Renaissance, began with a literal interpretation of moral relativism: “Man,” as Protagoras put it, “is the measure of all things.”
From the dark and hard-R reaches of cable, those morally relative men emerged, anxious gangsters and crooked cops, poetic serial killers and brilliant sociopaths, until television was pretty much an all-you-can-eat-buffet of anti-heroes, hot and cold.
And then there was “The Good Wife.”
Beginning on CBS in 2009 alongside other game-changing shows, including “Glee” and “Modern Family,” “The Good Wife” defied all the definitions of the newly coined “prestige drama.”
Created by Michelle and Robert King, it followed the longer network season (23 then 22 episodes). With a case-a-week format, it hit all the marks of a standard law procedural. It did not involve large amounts of bloody violence, graphic sex or profanity.
Oh, and it revolved around a woman, betrayed political spouse Alicia Florrick, played by “ER” darling Julianna Margulies.
It was an instant hit, and, more important, proof that broadcast could keep a hand in the “Golden Age” game. While other broadcast dramas watched in dismay as cable shows with small audiences dominated the critical conversation and crowded the red carpet, “The Good Wife” remained in contention.
It was often the Big 4’s sole dramatic representative on year-end Top 10 lists and, increasingly, at the Emmys; though the series has never won for outstanding drama series, the Kings and the series were nominated for the first two seasons, and Margulies has won twice.
Indeed, you could argue that “The Good Wife” finale on Sunday marks the end of the first-wave “Golden Agers,” those shows that helped push television into its current state of cultural prominence.
And it may be the one with the largest and most lasting influence, having created a template for the next generation. If the renaissance began with the anti-hero, its second stage has produced a new kind of heroine, one no longer hamstrung by the traditional expectations of easy emotion or instant “likability.”
Shows like “Outlander,” “Orphan Black,” “House of Cards,” “How to Get Away With Murder,” “Jessica Jones,” even “Penny Dreadful,” owe as much, if not more, to “The Good Wife” than any of their cable peers or even the expanding digital universe. Their female leads continue to stretch boundaries that Alicia Florrick simply refused to acknowledge.
With her careful smile and watchful demeanor, Alicia kept her own counsel and refused to be categorized; standing amid the anti-heroes, she was TV’s first Sphinx.
Her enigmatic mien was even more surprising given the familiarity of the character; “The Good Wife” was the fictionalized look at what happened to a political wife after she’s forced to Assume the Position, between podium and flag, as her erring spouse confesses his sins to the cameras.
It was a brilliant idea, smartly executed with maximum broadcast potential: With her husband, Peter (Chris Noth), disgraced and jailed, Alicia, once an attorney, must return to the law, competing against colleagues half her age.
The story had both the necessary procedural element — new episode, new case — and an easily identifiable “personal journey”; Alicia’s new boss, Will Gardner (Josh Charles) was even thrown in as a potential love interest
But miraculously, neither Margulies nor the Kings followed the usual script for any of that. Alicia wasn’t spunky, plucky or feisty; she wasn’t visibly wounded, emotionally damaged, fatally self-effacing or popping Valium in the bathroom.
With a restraint that bordered on the heroic yet never played as such, Margulies created a whole new type of character. Neither devoid of emotion nor hostage to it, Alicia was a woman who had learned to control what she could: This moment of her life. Then the next moment of her life. And so on.
She stood alone for many years, both as a character and a presence. HBO had the wonderful women of “Big Love,” but they were still defined by family, by marriage, in a way Alicia was not. “Homeland’s” Carrie Mathison appeared, powerful but, with her grimacing tears and brilliant madness, Alicia’s polar opposite.
Claire Underwood on “House of Cards” shared Alicia’s use of silence and noncommittal stares, but Claire, like her show, came from a place of near comic-book ruthlessness; she was no Everywoman facing the rubble of betrayal, the demands of work and family, the treachery of office politics.
And, as the series evolved, the show’s other, and equally complicated, female characters gained prominence — Archie Panjabi’s Kalinda, Christine Baranski’s Diane, and Makenzie Vega’s Grace.
For its first few seasons, “The Good Wife” was an astonishing hybrid of broadcast and cable sensibilities, the perfect balance of old-fashioned law procedural and smart, sophisticated character drama.
In recent years, that perfection faltered occasionally. The pressures of a 22-episode season began to tell. Too character-driven to be a real procedural, yet too tied to the pacing of a courtroom drama for free-range character expansion, “The Good Wife” suffered a bit from “Downton Abbey” syndrome — the devotion to keeping a beloved cast together often led to plot repetition and far too many main characters getting arrested.
Yet even with surprise casting changes and rumored on-set difficulties, Alicia’s story never faltered. Year after year, Alicia grew more complicated and self-directed. And year after year, other equally complex female characters began appearing in a wide variety of shows.
For better or worse, the Kings chose to end “The Good Wife” where it began — with Peter facing jail and Alicia once again asked to define the terms of the show’s title. The choice should be easier this time around, but as with most finales, it really doesn’t matter. “The Good Wife” has already left its mark: We will see Alicia’s deceptively tranquil gaze and enigmatic power reflected in the faces of increasingly diverse female characters for years to come.
After all, every renaissance needs its Mona Lisa.
‘The Good Wife’
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for coarse language)Sunday 9 p.m. KCBS
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