April 6th, 2010
It is possible that I’m running out of ways to discuss the quiet confidence of The Good Wife, which has become one of network television’s most consistently entertaining drama series, but let me run this one by you.
“Doubt” is in many ways a concept episode: it takes us into the jury room to witness the post-trial deliberations of 12 men and women, then weaves its way back through the case in a vaguely chronological order that has us guessing at certain bits and pieces of information before they truly arrive.
However, maybe it’s just me, but it didn’t feel like a concept episode. This is not a show defined by its bells and whistles, neither within its premise (which focuses solely on character) or in its general approach to legal proceedings (where each case is handled separately). The show doesn’t do anything to call attention to an “extra-special episode,” but rather drops us into the jury room just as they dropped us into the clerks creating an impromptu court room a few episodes ago.
By balancing the novelty of this shift in format with an episode that relies just as much on serialized character development as it does on the narrative structure, “Doubt” continues a fairly lengthy streak of episodes that demonstrate the sheer potential in this series and its cast.
What I love about The Good Wife is how it has built a roster of recurring characters who logically fit into this world on a regular basis without it feeling like some sort of event. While I don’t precisely know their names, there is something wonderfully familiar about seeing this particular judge, and this particularly prosecutor involved in this case. The show is really comfortable just bringing those characters back into the fold, and in an episode where we spend some of the time on a short 12 Angry Men homage it’s nice to know that everything else has remained the same despite this change in venue.
A lot of shows do their very own “12 Angry Men” episodes (Rob Thomas did two of them, even: one on Cupid, and then one on Veronica Mars), and it always boils down to the central question of reasonable doubt. However, I thought that the show did a nice job of building that doubt throughout the episode: we got to see how Will’s attempts to kill the police officer or the “boyfriend’s” scuzzy behaviour was affecting the jury as we were seeing the scenes for the first time, and that worked extremely well. The show was smart not to spend too much time trying to make us empathize with the jurors: we weren’t there to know who they were or try to handicap their opinions, but rather to witness their reactions to the scenes going on in the courtroom. We had information they didn’t, including the information that all signs pointed to her innocence by the time we reached the end of the episode, so our challenge was to see the court proceedings through their eyes, where our certainty was not quite so clear. We see Kalinda walking into the courtroom as a fun mind game, but the jurors saw it as some sort of ploy, and the show did a nice job of getting us into their headspace without losing the comparison between what we’re seeing and what they saw (which were always two different things).
The show also did some nice work just sort of filling in the gaps with character stuff. Diane’s relationship with Gary Cole’s Marlboro Man ballistics guy was well played by Christine Baranski and entered into the courtroom at just the right time to keep us guessing when it seemed like the evidence was in their favour – while it’s a bit quick to play out both their relationship and its impact on Will and Diane’s relationship, the latter connected nicely to the continued work on Will and Alicia’s awkwardness. Kalinda sees it, and Diane sees it, and both of them know that things are awkward, but there’s no movement. But yet there is those subtle seeds of concern, those signs that things will eventually go down a road: Alicia doesn’t shut the door on his intentions in the flirtatious phone call that Grace overhears, and Diane’s lack of any real doubt nicely played into the jury’s deliberations. Office gossip isn’t a court of law, and perception is 9/10 reality, and so those developments are sort of simmering at just the right level to fill in and complicate the legal side of things without entirely taking away from the case at hand.
But then you also have subtle moments, like how they actually handled Bianca’s case. In the end, she was never really a character: we didn’t start with her crime but rather with the jury deliberating her guilt, and so her character got revealed as slowly as the details of her case and her trial. She never got put on the stand, and we never got to spend time alone with her, but she ended up fairly sympathetic based purely on some nice subtle stuff with Matt Czuchry’s Carey. The character is certainly the least connected to the office politics, and the rivalry with Alicia never really came together as a long term story plan because the show likes its ensemble too much, but this was a tiny but nonetheless effective way to both demonstrate that Carey is competent and that it’s not Alicia who makes a connection with the client. In fact, this was barely an Alicia episode at all: outside of some early discussion of whether or not she was really Florrick’s wife in the jury room to offer commentary on what impact her trip to the gossip pages would have on the trial, she was mostly absent, which shows the confidence the show has on Josh Charles and the rest of the ensemble.
My one complaint about the episode, however, is that we learned that the jury was going to find her not guilty only for her and her mother to panic and take a plea bargain out of fear. I really liked the idea that she took a plea bargain: while there is doubt on a jury, there is even more doubt on both legal teams, and so there’s intense pressure to take a deal to keep from losing your entire life to being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong evidence against you. But I would have much rather left the episode with no knowledge of how the jury voted, left to wonder whether Bianca had made the right decision, then left knowing she threw away ten years of her life for no reason. Yes, there’s something tragic about that and it makes a fine case for the weight that doubt can carry, but I think the same issues could have been demonstrated even more effectively if the audience had been left in a position of doubt.
However, the fact that I’m even discussing such a strong thematic thread to an episode of what we all presumed was going to be a basic legal procedural with a decent hook is sort of fascinating: this was an episode that only briefly touched on the show’s premise, and instead built on a strong ensemble cast with complex and interesting personal relationships. Combine with a compelling legal case told in a unique structure, and throw in a nice take on a standard trope, and you’ve got yet another fine episode of network television’s great hope.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to fight back the urge to make a “Doubt” pun at the end of this review.
- I think the show is severely over-estimating the quality of cell phone video stills, as I can’t imagine one looking good enough that a still would look like even a cell phone camera photo – just a little quibble.
- I think the show needs to worry about becoming a bit too enamored with “I’m not a cop – I’m Kalinda” type scenes for our favourite investigator – I like the character and the liminal position she plays between law enforcement and legal counsel, but there’s a point where she’ll need to get caught in a situation where she struggles at least a bit so she seems human and the show’s world doesn’t seem to be populated with complete pushovers.
- Some nice Good Wife observations on the Twitter tonight: Jaime Weinman notes that the show pulls off the “these-young-people-today” murders better than any other CBS procedurals, and Dan Fienberg logically questions whether real lawyers define “reasonable doubt” so often when they’re not on a television show in an episode called “Doubt.”