Series Premiere: The Good Wife – “Pilot”

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“Pilot”

September 22nd, 2009

Considering that I’m almost a day late, and so many other critics have weighed in on the show and had largely positive opinions, I hadn’t really intended on sitting down to talk about The Good Wife, which I’ve always considered to be the one CBS pilot from this year that sounded legitimately interesting. A new NCIS (the original doing nothing for me, if nothing against me) isn’t going to get me excited, Three Rivers’ premise has enormously limited potential, and Accidentally on Purpose was strained from the start. But there was something both topical and intriguing about a show which took an aspect of a shockingly prevalent political phenomenon (the disgraced politician resigning as a result of a sex scandal) and asked itself a question: what happens to the wife?

And while more recent events would answer with “Go on a ridiculous summer reality show on your husband’s behalf,” The Good Wife fast forwards six months into the future to a position where Alicia (Julianna Margulies) is re-entering the work force as an underddog whose fellow juniour associates at her law firm were pre-teens when she last practiced. What results is logically two separate shows, one where Alicia struggles to raise her kids and live her life in the wake of her husband’s betrayal, and the other as she has to overcome years of rust to regain her composure as a lawyer.

But why the show is so effective is that rather than attempting to demonstrate how challenging it is to balance these two parts of her life, turning her into a harried disappointment to her children or a fundamental less of an attorney, the pilot is more interested in demonstrating that in some ways she’s meant for this. In some ways, what she has gone through in her personal life has made her a far more effective litigator, and has given her a new perspective on her family which keeps her priorities firmly in check. Alicia is a woman who has taken control of her own life, and by marrying her two worlds as largely harmonious as opposed to a constant conflict, it allows us to relate to Alicia on multiple levels – combine with a pretty great cast and an intriguing opening case, and you’ve got yourself a legal procedural I’ll stick with for a while.

I’ve seen a few places where people have wondered how the show’s premise, looking from the wife’s perspective into a political scandal, will be stretched into a series concept that will need to evolve and change over time. And I would agree that a show which embraced a wholly serialized storyline, simply looking at the wife after the fact, would have that problem, and I don’t think The Good Wife is scot free when it comes to such concerns. But at the end of the day the legal storyline is something that could operate independent of her background, the story of an older woman returning to the work force and struggling with bureaucracy/younger competition/everything else having quite a bit of play in it. What the pilot accomplishes is creating a background for that character which integrates into and increases the complexity of that procedural setting in a really effective fashion.

This is largely done by the allegation that Alicia is taking advice from her husband (who used to work for the prosecution, after all) in prison, especially as it relates to the pitting of evidence. As the judge notes, there is a fine ethical line involved in this, and the allegation isn’t untrue: she did learn that from her husband, although she had to rely on her own instincts (and her cohort the investigator), but even in this new job she can’t escape her husband’s ghost. The judge (an absolutely fantastic David Paymer) hates him, the prosecutor wants her to say hello, and the State’s Attorney believes that he is using her to get back at him, warning her that she’s collateral damage. Margulies is convincing throughout, but her response (that she has been collateral damage ever since the department released the sex tape that got her husband arrested, starting this whole charade) was one of those moments where you realize that this character not only has to handle the personal ramifications of her husband’s actions but also the professional ones.

The show doesn’t break any new ground, using the usual cliches to get its point across: an assistant gets caught watching the YouTube video of Pete’s press conference, Alicia finds herself repeating her own experience in the wake of the allegations when suggesting how her client might get away from the pressure of it all, and she gives Pete pictures of their kids just as she acquires pictures of her client’s daughter for her. But, because of how much her relationship with Peter logically (this is important) bleeds into her new career (unavoidable when entering into the legal profession in which she was trained), the show never feels as if it is forcing these connections or that it is turning them into a conflict. Her entire life, since the allegations, has had her trapped in the middle as collateral damage, and in her new life she has to embrace the connections which work (like his knowledge about the pitted evidence) and overcome those which don’t (like the judge who hates him). The whole point of starting her own life is to do just that, but the show never shows her struggle as the direct result of her husband: it is always a combination of factors, her rust and her public past converging.

And as long as the show keeps walking that fine line between these two ideas, it has the cast to achieve some pretty great stuff. My weeks spent watching Sports Night this summer make me very glad to see Josh Charles as her lifeline (her connection with him, professional but also personal enough to eventually potentially turn romantic, seeming to have gotten her the gig) and boss at the firm, and Christine Baranski as a hard-edged senior associate with a dog named Justice and a self-defined role of mentor has both dramatic and comic potential. Matt Czuchry (late of Gilmore Girls) is well cast as a young hotshot who we learn (in the pilot’s one machination which feels less than organic) is competing with Alicia for one position once six months are up, but the shared assistant and the “let the best man win” could have been a bit more subtle. Not only do I question what law firm in this economic climate could afford to hire two people, and pay them enough money for Alicia to be able to pay rent on that beautiful apartment, but the play of young vs. old seems tired compared to the more interesting dynamic with Alicia and the senior associates.

But, overall, it’s a universe that feels capable of expanding. While we’re not going to see Chris Noth every week, Peter’s appeal will be going to court soon enough, and his fate his very much intertwined with hers depending on how things turn out. Alicia says that nothing will ever be normal again, and as much as I’d like to see her likable character be happy that’s kind of what makes the show so interesting. It isn’t just another legal drama, nor another family drama, or even a show where a mother is forced to choose between her law firm and her family. Instead, it’s the story of a really compelling character placed into a reliable procedural structure played by a talented actress amidst a well-collected cast – and, well, I’ll watch that show.

Cultural Observations

  • As MediaObsessed pointed out on Twitter, there are reasons to be concerned about Cary (Matt Czuchry’s character) turning into a complete jerk, although one has to wonder how much of this is influenced by the character he played on Gilmore Girls. That show defined Czurchy as the definitive douchebag to the point where, when they eventually tried to make him a realistic relationship option, it felt more false than it should have. They need to make sure that he’s at least moderately humanized, as I don’t think the show would do well with such a clear read on a character when so much of the show is about playing particular roles.
  • I really love the relationship between Alicia and her private investigator: yes, the fact that she used to work for her husband is a bit too cute, but the actress (Archie Panjabi) is quite funny and their various bonding scenes (like the tequila shots) allow for a good combination of no-nonsense exposition and enjoyable exchange.
  • I am thankful that the pilot never bothered to show us any of the conflict between Alicia’s mother-in-law and her daughter – by instead only showing us Alicia’s interactions with her, and her discussions with her kids about it, it shows more about how she deals with drama than with the drama itself. Both of the scenes with her kids made them seem very realistic (her daughter’s choice in ringtones was a clever way to say that she’s, well, slightly clever), and not a nuisance to the show getting anything done.

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