There are few things in life more fun than "The Good Wife" when it is firing on all cylinders.
Sunday's episode was most definitely a case of the show doing its thing with admirable panache. It was almost too crammed with "Good Wife" goodness: Gloria Steinem appeared to Alicia, as both a real person and as a mystical advice-giving life coach; Team Florrick Agos adroitly fended off another attempt to put Cary in jail; Alicia's protested much about not running for office, only to be so enraged by the State's Attorney's slimy insinuations that she all but pinned a "Vote Alicia" button on her perfectly fitted suit.
They say the devil's in the details, but so are the angels: "The Good Wife" is often so good because it enjoys making a meal of scenes that would be purely functional on any other show. That is my way of saying that I would happily watch Linda Lavin's character drinking a glass of water while staring at Diane Lockhart on an endless loop. What was the deal with the guy who "didn't say that," the person Lavin's character referred to in multiple phone calls? We'll never know, but it was another instance of the show creating an instantly memorable character through smart casting, writing and set design (that echoing sea of cubicles evoked every bureaucratic hellscape any of us have ever had to endure).
Should Alicia run for office? Sure, why not? "Parks and Recreation" ("The Good Wife's" comedy doppelgänger) spent its strongest season on Leslie running for office, and I can see "The Good Wife" pulling off a similar feat. Both shows function best when they've got a strong narrative through-line linking individual episodes, and, as was the case on the NBC comedy, the stakes of a high-profile race will allow "The Good Wife" to explore the compromises, bravery and unsavory choices that are part of any serious foray into public life.
Why am I comparing "The Good Wife" to a half-hour comedy? Not just because both are ensemble pieces with female protagonists, and not just because both have a lot of moving pieces to juggle as they head into their sixth (for "The Good Wife") and seventh (for "Parks and Rec") seasons.
No, the comparison seems apt to me because both programs are all about giving the audience a good time. They have serious undercurrents and unabashed moral concerns and they don't mind having characters who come off as earnest or enthusiastic. But both want to be enjoyable, and thus the heights are higher and the depths are easier to take because the will to entertain is so clearly present. Sometimes watching TV -- even TV I admire -- can be hard (this is why there are still multiple episodes of "Hannibal" on my DVR.) Don't get me wrong: Darkness can be captivating and it's good to be challenged. But over time, you learn to appreciate the programs that go down like a buttery Chardonnay.
From the get-go, one of the things I've liked most about "The Good Wife" is that it frequently depicts people enjoying the fact that they are good at their jobs. They like what they do! How crazy is that?
In all seriousness, too few fictional stories do this. There are a lot of TV characters who grimly put up with their jobs or actively dislike them; some just do what they do without really appearing to care that much one way or another because they've got vampires or zombies or Lannisters or Horsemen to fight, and those are totally legitimate reasons to be distracted from the day job.
But one function of television is to serve as wish fulfillment, and who doesn't wish they crushed their to-do list as hard as "The Good Wife's" characters do?
As is the case with "Suits," another show about high-powered attorneys who have enviable clothing budgets, part of what makes "The Good Wife" a kick is the satisfaction the characters take from kicking ass. It's not unusual for kicking ass to get the characters into unexpected scrapes, and sometimes big complications put their personal and professional lives under a great deal of pressure. But these characters actually thrive on pressure. What a glorious fantasy that is -- the idea of our troubles not getting us down but getting us visits from Gloria Steinem and a deep sense of satisfaction when the day is done.
"Suits" isn't taken all that seriously by the Grand Poobahs of television, which is a shame, but I will admit that "The Good Wife," at its best, attempts fusions of tone, form and theme that -- when they work -- place the show in television's tippy-top tier. But it's that placement in television's highest stratosphere that sometimes surprises me. "The Good Wife" is so often enjoyable -- and, for some shows, being enjoyable has meant they are taken less seriously than they should be.
For a while there, if a show was Dour and Serious, if it was infused with pessimism and anxiety, and if it appeared on the "right" cable channels, it often got an entrée into TV's Real Contenders club, or at least a serious tryout from drama aficionados. Though a lot of us have gotten good at seeing through these kinds of ventures and spotting the truly compelling dark gems, the trend that Willa Paskin called Bummer TV might actually be growing. "As prestige-seeking television has gotten increasingly grisly and lurid, it has also become ever more dedicated to exploring the painful psychological ramifications of … grisliness," Paskin wrote. "This has led to a new and simple equation: The greater the grief-to-gore ratio, the more 'serious' the show."
The Prestige TV realm and the rare pockets of Ambitious Network TV offer a steady stream of this kind of fare, but the trend even snared a veteran like "Supernatural" a few years ago. Somehow writers get the idea that negativity and pessimism equal depth, when in reality, constant gloominess in fictional storytelling comes off as a kind of juvenile indulgence. It's easy to have characters constantly beaten down by life and to buy into nihilism. If the default always ends up being "life sucks," that makes the writing less challenging and it makes me check out as a viewer (hence my decision to give up on "The Walking Dead"). What's harder is building a world that is full of challenges and yet also a place in which actions have meaning and connections aren't always disappointing or fraught. Though Matthew McConaughey sold the hell of out of it, Rust Cohle's dorm-room fatalism was ultimately a dead end, as even his own character admitted at the end of "True Detective's" first season.
"The Good Wife" was way ahead of you, bro.
Constant grimness and seriousness of purpose will likely continue to be conflated by some who create ambitious dramas, probably for a long time to come (and to be clear, I think uninspired Bummer Dramas are something that the industry churns out for its own reasons, not because critics and viewers are necessarily clamoring for them). But "The Good Wife" has rejected that the idea that complexity must always be twinned with negativity, even as it has rejected the idea that Alicia must be either good or a wife.
As Emily Nussbaum points out, "The Good Wife" is a nimble show with "unusually flexible and pragmatic TV makers" in Robert and Michelle King. Not everything they try works (and sometimes the show feels overstuffed with tertiary characters), but the show keeps eluding the "rules" of Prestige TV and quietly coming up with its own. It turned Alicia's walkout from her old firm into a nail-biting drama and the death of a lead character came off as a moment of strength, not a desperate ploy. That said, it does have some advantages that many worthy-but-marginal shows don't: It's a legal drama, it veers into the realm of politics and current events and it stars a lot of actors well-known from previous TV gigs. These elements allow it to be talked about and elevated in a way that, say, "Call the Midwife" and my beloved "Penny Dreadful" are not.
Still, I feel the urge to celebrate the fact that a show that's fun gets to be in the Real Contenders club and is talked about as one of TV's best hours. Like the attorneys it portrays, "The Good Wife" enjoys excelling in its chosen field, and when its stories unfold cleanly and with elegant purpose, that energetic sense of joy is infectious. Did I mention that there were a lot of fantastic eye rolls from Alicia on Sunday night?
Sometimes that's all you need.