Aired: March 16th, 2010
[Cultural Learnings' Top 10 Episodes of 2010 are in no particular order, and are purely subjective - for more information, and the complete list as it goes up, click here.]
As odd as it sounds, I think the focus on The Good Wife’s complexity is often an oversimplification.
I appreciate that the series engages in ongoing serial narratives, and that it serves as a character/workplace drama along with its legal procedural elements; I love moments when these two worlds collide, like when Alicia finds herself hearing conversations about her husband on FBI tapes she’s investigating for another case. The interplay of these various spheres is a key part of the series’ success, and certainly what sets it apart from the majority of network procedurals.
However, The Good Wife would not be half as successful as it is without the ability to tell compelling procedural stories within that framework; while the show can sustain episodes without the structure of a weekly case, that it chooses not to places immense pressure on those cases to deliver. Sometimes they are fairly generic, but other times they feature compelling judges (like Ana Gasteyer’s “in your opinion”) or compelling attorneys (both Mamie Gummer and Michael J. Fox made an impact in this area) which elevate the episodes regardless of serialization.
“Heart” stands out for me out of the series’ output this year because it holds considerable meaning without overindulging in serialization. The way we’re dropped into the chaos of the emergency trial, and the way Martha Plimpton entirely steals the show with her newborn baby, are what I remember most strongly from the episode: the case was scrappy and distinctive, makeshift and yet emotionally resonant, and the writing was strong throughout. However, in reality, the episode was hugely important to the central love triangle between Alicia/Will/Peter, and even marked a key turning point for Peter’s campaign (which has become a cornerstone of the second season).
It was also the first time that Peter and Will had been in the same room since the series began, which I think nicely captures the episode’s charms. It is one of the first examples where it feels like the worlds are colliding rather than co-existing, where the various moving pieces (the trial, Peter’s campaign, Alicia and Will’s relationship) run into each other instead of just adding layers to the proceedings. We can chart the success of those serialized elements to the series’ larger narrative arc, but I’d argue that it’s the rhythm (the beating heart, if you will) of the procedural storyline that actually makes it work. While Alicia’s decisions in the episode are informed by a life’s worth of experience, the weekly case seems perfectly calibrated to guide her actions without seeming contrived or convenient.
Instead, it seems effortless, which is when the show is at its best: its full-on serialized episodes may seem more important to the story, but episodes like “Heart” are necessary to provide the series with the license to tell those larger stories. The show has always been about the balance of these two types of storytelling, but its finest moments (for me) will always be those where the two are working in harmony rather than those where one is drowning out the other (regardless of which one is dominant).