The Good Wife – “Unprepared”


November 17th, 2009

The Good Wife has earned the rather ominous title of being the most unexpected critical “success” of the new season, maintaining the positive response to its pilot and growing into a confident, sophisticated mix of procedural law constructs and some intriguing serialized character dynamics. The show isn’t extraordinary, but in a year where the biggest new drama series (like ABC’s FlashForward and V) are still searching for an identity the simple elegance of The Good Wife is legitimately refreshing.

However, the show’s consistency has been its undoing in one area, as the show’s persistence in crafting connections between Alicia and the cases she tries has begun to wear thin. Last week’s episode was actually really compelling, smartly introducing a new character for Alicia to interact with (the non-lawyer) and introducing a case that had both ramifications in the law firm (being the partner’s daughter) and that involved the unique questions of orthodoxy. However, the show used the marital strife which resulted from the case in order to make Alicia an ideal lawyer not because she is particularly skilled, but rather because she knows what her clients are going through.

There’s nothing wrong with this, and perhaps some could argue it actually helps solidify her character, but as long as she is defined by her past the show feels as if it has less forward momentum than it should. An episode like “Unprepared” works because of how legitimately central Peter Florrick’s trial is to the events in the episode, but in his absence the show relies heavily on those aspects of her life. At some point, Peter Florrick is going to come home, or be sent away for a long time: at that point, what does The Good Wife become?

It’s a question that’s been bugging me, even while I’ve found The Good Wife to be consistently enjoyable.

This is going to sound very strange to the show’s target audience, who likely aren’t big fans of the cult video game series Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, but this episode played out more like one of those games than a traditional trial. The episode wasn’t building to a big trial moment so much as it was utilizing the witness preparation as an effort to give us the clues necessary to be able to figure out what was happening. Every legal show uses this to some extent, but what reminded me of this particular video games series is that there was a real light-hearted tone here: this was never a particularly dire case, rarely falling into melodrama and on a few occasions legitimately going for comedy. The episode even used a familiar Phoenix Wright trick of taking someone largely played for comedy and turning them into a far more sinister individual on the witness stand, albeit one who was simply obsessive to the point of being willing to commit arson.

The structure isn’t overly complex, as I knew something was up long before the show explicitly brought it up (the 8 minute thing tipped me off), but there was something about the case that was just simple and enjoyable. Kalinda got to play a small role figuring out that the letters were a hoax, Alicia and Carey got to have some tense (but enjoyable) interactions playing Good Cop/Bad Cop for the witnesses, and when the case was eventually solved it was tidy without being entirely without consequence. While it followed the usual procedural structure of going wrong (the weak witness, the struggles with other witnesses) before eventually ending successfully, I thought that the look into the process was a more realistic look at how Alicia would be involved in a case like this as a Junior Associate, and felt like the right storyline to stand beside a more substantial serialized development.

I’m still not entirely sure where the show wants us to sit on Chris Noth’s Peter Florrick, but at this point audience reaction is irrelevant: Alicia’s independence is too tenuous (look at how she places his one suit into her closet) for him to return directly into her life, so the failure of his bail hearing was inevitable. But it’s tough to know if we’re supposed to sympathize with Peter for getting screwed over by the Assistant State’s Attorney (who he thought was his friend) when he could have easily completely dismissed the man as opposed to hearing him out. And while his kids may be continuing the investigation into his innocence, I’m not convinced the show would ever allow him to re-emerge into this family, which means that this is all more about Alicia than it is Peter.

As a result, we got our quick and dirty connection (she’s preparing witnesses and now she’s a witness) and a scene of Alicia taking some names on the witness stand as she holds Landry accountable for his badgering. It was a bit over the top (as in, I’d have put her in contempt of his questions at a point, even if he was being a complete douche), but Julianna Margulies was as strong as she always is in these bigger scenes and I thought it hit home how much she’s willing to still sacrifice for her husband and her children during the uncertainty of this appeal process.

I’ve got some believability issues with the kids investigating his innocence, and I do think the thematic connections are too on the nose, but both elements are giving the show a very clear purpose. The show has no identity crisis, and is content with telling compelling stories with strong performances and a sense of purpose (Peter’s guilt/innocence) that might not last forever but is doing just fine for the time being.

Cultural Observations

  • The idea of pitting Carey and Alicia against each other (“it doesn’t get any more Darwinian”) made me worried the show would actively attempt to turn Matt Czuchry into a complete jerk, but I thought he and Alicia teaming up in order to completely destroy the Physics professor’s alibi was a good way to recognize their ability to work together when the case requires it.
  • Seriously, the kids solving crimes is getting to the point of being a bit ridiculous, but I was at least convinced this week that these two kids are both a) resourceful enough and b) concerned enough for their mother to hide this from her and try to take a stab at it on their own. Plus, last week’s “Sex Line” story gave it a bit more innocent vibe that demonstrated that they’re not the next exactly the next Hardy/Drew pairing.
  • Peter Riegert is the latest to join the list of New York-based actors (he was last on Damages) to take on a judge role on the show – curious to see just how far they can stretch this trope.
  • Jill Flint is also making the rounds: she co-stars in Royal Pains, did a recurring spot on Nurse Jackie, and now has a brief cameo as an FBI contact of Kalinda’s here.

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