7.31.2010

Thoughts on "The Good Wife"

The Cheese Fry has recently been trying to work through its backlogged DVR list. It can be a real chore. You'd rather watch a schlocky rerun of "Cops," but then you remember those seven recorded episodes of "30 Rock" and feel guilty about not burning through some of those. The DVR starts to feel like homework. Make dinner, clean the kitchen, fast-forward through a three-month-old "Saturday Night Live." Repeat tomorrow.

But there are benefits to the DVR, such as discovering a new favorite. We'd watched CBS' "The Good Wife" a few times early last fall, but it stopped being appointment viewing around the holidays. But the Cheese Fry kept it on the DVR list, so the episodes kept stacking up. Part of our reluctance stemmed from the fact that "The Good Wife" is so clearly an older-skewing show like other CBS dramas "The Mentalist" and the "NCIS" franchise. It's a slow-moving drama cast mostly with people over the age of 40. Nothing blows up. No one strips to their underwear. And the big twists that end episodes are fairly small, more clever than shocking. In short, this is a show our parents watch. Not us. We're still hip, right? We like the "Real World-Road Rules Challenge" and "So You Think You Can Dance." Even so, we must sadly come to grips with the simple fact that we're way past that coveted 18-34 advertising demographic.

So we might as well embrace "The Good Wife" and list its charms:

* Julianna Margulies is not what you expect from a TV star. She's not exactly charismatic. She rarely offers any sort of expression. Her voice is evenly modulated. Her acting style is placid sometimes to the point of android catatonia. And it's not just an actorly take on the button-down character of spurned-politician-wife-turned-lawyer Alicia Florrick. This is pretty much how she played Carol Hathaway on "ER" all those years ago. Her silent brooding sets the tone for entire series, which is filled with civil conversations, cold emotion, and hushed discussions.

* It may be the quietest show on television. The music cues are soft, the characters all powerful and upper-class in that way that keeps them from ever raising their voice, and the editing very traditional and methodical. It's the antidote to the overblown, finger-wagging theatrics of "Law & Order" or the slick and glossy hyperactive aesthetic of "CSI."

* The serialized storyline offers a complex look at backroom political dealings. Along with the standalone legal plots of the episodes, which always features Alicia finding a way to Save the Day, each episode also advances the story of Alicia's disgraced husband Peter. Peter was the state attorney general, but he was charged with bribery (we think) and is now locked in a complicated legal conflict with his successor (played by the always weasely Titus Welliver). There's a fascinating level of dirty murk in this storyline because we've never exactly sure what's going on or who's doing what to who. Both sides have allies, some clearer than others; both sides suffer setbacks and win small victories; and a lot of people caught in the middle get used as pawns (including Alicia) in the bigger fight. It's compelling because it all seems so plausible. This isn't a quick showdown where someone breaks down on the stand and the winner is decided, this is a marathon legal struggle involving some very bright and very determined people. We never watched "The Wire," but we suspect this is the poor man's version of that show - a look at how politics and justice and influence and wealth tie together in messy ways that aren't entirely legal but also may not be exactly illegal.

* Even the rich have money problems. There's no doubt that Alicia and her co-workers are upper class. They work in expansive offices with city views and live in plush condos. It's well-executed wish fulfillment for middle America who craves that kind of fancy uptown lifestyle. But even so, the show mines a lot of drama out of financial problems of the sort that middle America is surely quite familiar. Alicia worries about losing her job, the firm agonizes over layoffs, everyone feels the pressure to perform or else. The rich and powerful... they're just like us!

* Not everything is flawless. The firm's investigator, a mysterious woman named Kalinda, is sometimes a little too good to be true. Kalinda isn't just well connected, she seems to have a Deep Throat source on every street corner. She's always able to dig up some secret clue or deduce some connection in the nick of time to help Alicia. She so invaluable that we wonder why she's not a partner at the firm, although one episode did suggest that Kalinda's services are quite well-compensated. Even so, it'd be nice to see her fail at least once. Right now, Kalinda is more a plot tool than a three-dimensional character.

We like this show. And we're not ashamed to say it.

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