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Catie Lazarus

Catie Lazarus

Posted: October 21, 2009 12:56 PM

TV Review: The Good Wife Goes to Better Heights

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The Good Wife is closer than any Oprah or Barbara Walters special will ever be to bringing this viewer to understanding why Hilda Spitzer, Elizabeth Edwards (until recently), Hilary Clinton, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Onassis, and so on, stood by their men.

In this one hour, weekly, CBS procedural, Alicia Florrick, who Juliana Margulies adroitly portrays, must pick up their pieces when Peter Florrick, her attorney general husband is caught in salacious sex and corruption scandals and lands in prison. Alicia finds herself forced to into a new role as a breadwinner and single (for all intents and purposes) mother, one she seems to mainly enjoy. Why doesn't she divorce Peter remains elusive, except that it seems logical that an educated mother of two children would focus on the bottom line instead of on keeping face.

Sure Elizabeth Edwards was finally forced to pull the plug, but the majority of the wives unwillingly embroiled in political scandals stay on and Elizabeth Edwards held out as long as she could. Based on the divorce rate, fewer non-famous couples feel the need to stick it out, even under less salty circumstances.

If staying put seems unrealistic, the unsexy nature of Alicia's new life is believable. She returns to practicing law, as an associate at a fancy Chicago firm, a life she had put on hold when Peter became a political appointee. Every episode revolves around her cracking a new uphill legal battle, albeit not all on her own, but always on behalf of the runt.

As with other procedural shows, she will prevail and justice will reign in the runt's favor. Alicia's newfound life-calling is to rescue the underdog, whether it's a neglected, wealthy white, innocent teen unfairly pinned with a murder or three widowed single mothers whose husbands were unfairly killed and blamed with a train crash by a (faux) conglomerate Cross National Freight. Her cases get solved with the help of humans who feel for her. Like when Alicia is tipped off, somewhat miraculously, by a low-level Cross National Freight worker who returns after hours to Alicia's law firm, to give her a two word clue, "Newbury Heights." (Later in the episode, the same witness blurts out that Alicia shouldn't do to her what's been done to Alicia.)

Even though most corporate battles are rarely this black and white or centered on innocent individual victims, mainstream depictions of heroines these days seem forced to revel in their feminine instincts, come off as assertive but not too aggressive. When Alicia is forced to decide between caring for people and protecting her own job, she feels torn. While she pities a key witness, a young, working class white mother, and her clients, three, Latina and black, poor, widowed mothers, Alicia turns to her high school aged daughter, Grace, for advice. Her daughter's name is no more (or less) cliché than her pearls of wisdom. As the two sit on the couch, watching TV, Grace tells her mom, "You can't just not do your job."

One, meaning I, hope The Good Wife won't fall prey to other formulas. Thus far, Alicia hasn't fallen for her modestly arrogant (if such a phrase exists), old friend and boss, Will Gardner, played by Josh Charles. He is attentive and protective of Alicia, defending her against his biting, nakedly ambitious, aging, competitive female colleague, Diane Lockhart, perfectly played by Christine Baranski. There are no legal records documenting partners, even those who want to shutup their associates, applauding every softball caught, not that it's not something to strive towards.

Outside of these soapy moments, most of the tension and airtime revolves around Alicia's work as an associate. Her sidekick is Kalinda Sharma, a scrappy, underpaid, sexy, and "down-to-earth" research assistant, played by the agile and beautiful Archie Panjabi.

If The Jay Leno Show cut work for dramatic actors, The Good Wife has brought more opportunity for New York based dramatic actors. The fourth episode features Martha Plimpton, who guest stars as a pregnant executive with a bloated defense of her corporation, Cross National Freight. She undermines Alicia, sniping jealously about Alicia's comfortable relationship with Will by saying, "I guess he finds you challenging, something with an interesting history." Luckily, Alicia has built up an arsenal of answers, like "After the past seven months, I'm vaccinated."

Alicia's public humiliation is not a hindrance, even though many of her opponents try to turn it into a problem. Her baggage is a bonus. The assumption is that her own experiences inform her ability to empathize with victims in need of a champion. There is another, albeit unspoken, assumption that the other white, well read, fed, and bread lawyers haven't experienced real pain and therefore can't empathize with real people. It's a believable hypothesis, but the idea that one must be able to identify, psychologically speaking, in order to execute a task is problematic.

Indeed, she has suffered. Alicia must relocate her and her teenage children, Zack and Grace, to a small Chicago apartment and pull them out of their tony private school and suburban Highland Park home. She also loses friends, including one whose son Alicia the lawyer goes on to rescue from juvie, with little thanks from his folks.

To the show's credit, Alicia's husband, children, and mother-in-law don't idealize or pity her. The misogynistic, sleazy, smart, politically ambitious husband is performed, not surprisingly, by Chris Noth. It's hard to tell Peter Florrick apart from Mr. Big and Detective Mike Logan, as his distinct, low-pitched, gravely voice can be heard on three channels simultaneously, including re-runs.

While their relationship can be testy, Peter tips Alicia off during her first legal case, helping her to solve the case. Their relationship also works against her. In the same case, an old political foe of Peter tries to sway the judge against Alicia, claiming she received confidential information from Peter. She did, but he can't prove it, and somehow he comes off the bad guy for trying to do so.

Peter's shadow looms in her private life as well. At the beginning of the fourth episode, Peter questions his mother Jackie for referring to Alicia as only the third person pronoun,  "she." Unapologetic, Jackie belittles Alicia, telling on her to Peter for spending long hours at the law firm, hinting that Alicia is probably having an affair with her boss. (Since when is midnight at a law firm for an associate "late"?) The two women rarely see eye to eye, as Jackie refuses to acknowledge her son's bad behavior. It is a different generation and Alicia won't cower.

"You respect me," Alicia screams at Jackie, furious when Jackie sheepishly admits to having taken Zack and Grace to see their father without Alicia's permission. Enraged, she threatens to kick out Jackie if it happens again. It's too bad she isn't volatile more often, because she's remarkably authentic and captivating when she comes unhinged.

Alicia's own stabs at parenting are limited. She seems less involved with her children than one imagines (and hopes) was the case when she was a stay-at-home mom. Instead, Alicia seems more like a traditional, breadwinner father. Their bonding time consists of her taking them to school in the morning and popping in their bedrooms at night for a minute or two. The two teens seem to show little interest in coddled. That said, there's no syrupy attempt to mask the challenges in parenting teenagers, but the show seems to assume that children, even teenage ones, are better seen and not heard. Alicia doesn't consult her husband, she tells him what is going on with the kids.

It's evident she misses having a partner. In the second episode, Alicia indicates how much she misses the intimacy, sexually, of being with her husband, and caresses the scrape in their headboard, as she reminisces about an indent they made during some tawdry, fun, biblical activities. But the happier memory turns sour when she recalls Peter sliding out of the bed to deal with a work call and, despite her objections, leaving her to return to work.

Now the tables are turned and Peter is longing for her to stay loyal and forgive his trespasses, like his being caught sucking on the toes of an escort. Peter tells her how beautiful she is now, confessing that jail gives him plenty of time to mull things over. Alicia responds that she has had time to think outside of prison. By the end of the fourth episode, we are left not knowing whether she will continue to stand by him. Alicia is taking it day by day.

After all, she is attractive and now the breadwinner having returned to the legal world. She must shepherd Zack and Grace through adolescence and teach them and herself how to navigate the constant unsolicited commentary from strangers, including a homely, older, fem ale applicant who has the nerve (and lack of self awareness) to compliment Alicia for looks less dowdy in person than she does on TV. Alicia is always being judged, whether the input is positive or negative, even subordinates feel comfortable eschewing their opinions.

Yup, it sucks to have married a shmuck. Alicia is forced to ask herself if Peter always was one, a question which non-political mates ask themselves in even the most respectful relationships. One wonders what role, if any, Alicia Florrick, will play in informing the decisions made by bright, self-actualized political wives, when they find themselves in similar circumstances. Based on the number of stories just this year, including Governor Elliot Spitzer, Governor Mark Sanford, Senator John Ensign, Senator John Edwards, is no question that the circumstance will arise.

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