March 16th, 2010
Contrary to appearances, I don’t actually blog about every show I watch; yes, I blog a lot, but there are still shows that I’ll watch, and even enjoy a great deal, within a given week that just don’t make it into the rotation. Usually, there’s a draft or two about these shows kicking around, posts started but eventually abandoned either for a lack of time or a lack of content: I really enjoy Greek, for example, but rarely have anything substantial to say about it. But other times, I’m reminded that I never wrote an individual review of any episodes of a show like United States of Tara despite the fact that I really enjoyed the show’s first season and am excited about its second.
The Good Wife is a show that I haven’t blogged about since November because, well, no one else is blogging about it. It’s not that people have stopped watching it, per se, but rather that no one expected it to be the kind of show that you would write about on a weekly basis. I’m still not convinced that it’s the kind of show I could “review” in the way that I review something like Lost, but I feel it’s necessary to take a moment to reflect on just how far this show has come. I reviewed the show early on in its run, noting its growing confidence for a freshman series, but the new year has seen the show improve even further.
While Entertainment Weekly was a bit bullish in claiming it as the best show on television (RIGHT NOW), it continues to make a strong statement as its mix of workplace, family and courtroom drama seems both more complex and more comfortable with each passing episode, and “Heart” is another fine example of its continued success, and a great excuse to finally talk about it some more.
When Alicia and Will finally had a romantic moment, inevitable since their sexual tension has been well-documented since the pilot, it felt sort of natural for us as an audience. We’ve been watching the two of them dancing around it for a while, so the “will they, won’t they” that resulted from that initial kiss was the sort of thing that we had already played out; she resists, he backs off, and she changes in her mind just in time for them to miss one another and create a passed moment that gets chalked up to “bad timing.” It’s the ultimate tease, allowing the show to maintain the status quo while acknowledging that the tension has been put on hold if not shelved altogether.
And yet, the show buried the more substantial development within this story, as Will shows up to Alicia’s apartment the next morning. In that moment, I came to a realization: in all of the show’s 17 episodes, Will and Peter have never been in the same room, nor have their spoken to one another in any capacity. There’s a point in the episode where Alicia, explaining to Will why she isn’t willing to give into temptation, explains that she doesn’t want every part of her life to be damaged and broken; I had taken this to be more logical than structural, but it got me thinking about what it means that Will and Peter have never crossed paths. This show has been balancing the workplace drama at Stern, Lockhart and Gardner with Peter’s ongoing retrial as if it was nothing, and while the weight of that (and the rest of her family) have worn down Alicia they haven’t worn down the show itself.
The conflict that exists in Alicia’s world does, as we saw in this case, occasionally bleed into her work or her life, and she ends up in Peter’s bed (not “their” bed, very much by design on her part) in order to release the tension surrounding the night’s dramatic events. However, the show has to move on with the legal story (the emergency judgment surrounding an insurance claim for a fetal heart procedure) after the fact, so they need to be able to switch gears quickly and effectively to make it work. The show’s juggling act was really elegantly handled from a writing perspective in “Heart,” nicely balancing some fairly substantial serial developments with a compelling legal case: in fact, I want to break it down just to demonstrate how nice it was.
First off, the case itself had two important design decisions that really made it come together. The first was the opening sequence, as we open on the judges’ chambers being hastily assembled to meet the emergency situation at hand. There’s no conversation with Will and Alicia discussing what an emergency hearing entails, instead just the chaos as lawyers and plaintiffs and defendants scramble into the makeshift courtroom. It drops you right into the carnage, and there’s a nice air of uncertainty about it which feeds into the second element that really came together: Martha Plimpton. Last seen authoritatively pregnant, watching Plimpton’s Patty Nyland use her daughter as a prop, and using her lateness as a potential strategy, was just really enjoyable. Plimpton dominated the courtroom scenes, there’s no question about it, but the show knows how to contain that both through the strength of Josh Charles’ performance as Will and in terms of always depicting Nyland as a cutthroat attorney rather than as a cutthroat individual.
Then you have Peter’s search for religion, which would have been great for the presence of two Wire alumni (Frankie Faison, Burrell, and Gbenga Akinnagbe, Chris Partlow, as father and son) but which becomes most interesting when it intersects with Alicia’s story. When the show crosses streams, having Peter become part of Alicia’s case or Alicia becoming part of Peter’s trial, the show is great at capturing that tension: Alicia feels uncomfortable about Will being in her apartment, but Peter feels uncomfortable sleeping with his wife with his newfound religion remaining the elephant in the room. Yes, the show is from Alicia’s perspective, but we’ve seen enough of Peter that I can’t imagine the show without Chris Noth, and it gave that scene an extra meaning beyond just a simple love triangle. It’s like every time the show tries to veer into melodramatic territory, there’s a case that forces them to remain grounded, and Peter, Will and Alicia are brought together in order to bring the insurance case to a desirable end.
When you think about it, Julianna Margulies is not in a lot of this episode: she doesn’t play a substantial role in the trial, and she has very little involvement in Peter’s story. And yet, even with only that key sequences of sexual temptation and desire, she manages to make a pretty substantial statement, and the episode manages to advance the serialized story without spending too much time with the eponymous wife. My point is that the show has built up around Margulies: she deserves her Golden Globe and SAG wins, don’t get me wrong, but I think that the cast’s SAG nomination is looking more and more prescient as the year stretches on. This is the kind of show that doesn’t get attention for its craft because nothing stands out, but the fact that a show with so many different areas of Alicia’s life, all coming into conflict with one another, doesn’t feel overburdened or incongruous is a true testament to the work being done.
“Heart” demonstrates that the show can maintain its structural integrity with an overpowering guest star presence, a fairly melodramatic plot development, and the convergence of two worlds in a way the show has never done before. The show still has room to grow – this episode featured little of both Christine Baranski and Matt Czuchry, for example – in the months ahead, but right now it’s exactly what fans of dramatic television should be looking for: a consistent, unique, and compelling series.
- One weird moment: was Peter not aware that Kalinda was working for Stern, Lockhart and Gardner? I have to presume that Kalinda would have been around, or on the phone with Alicia, at some point where he would have discovered that fact, so I have to presume he was playing dumb for some reason.
- I’ve tweeted about this in the past, but this show is going to have some pretty heavy Emmy potential: Baranski and Margulies have all sorts of nominations, and I think both Chris Noth and Josh Charles are serious contenders with the right campaign.
- Not entirely coincidentally, I followed up Plimpton’s guest stint here with her role on HBO’s How to Make it in America – she’s great in both, which means I think she deserves her own show even if I’d rather she be able to remain on call for The Good Wife as a recurring player. As the stable of guest stars (either as lawyers, like Meryl Streep’s daughter or Plimpton, or judges, like Ana Gasteyer last week) grows, the show’s long-term potential only improves.