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GoodWife

The Fastest Show on TV: On The Good Wife

A COUPLE WEEKS AGO, in this very column, I made an off-hand claim that The Good Wife is “the best show on television.” I’m certainly not alone in this belief, and the veritable Chumhum Army that came out of the twittersphere to co-sign it is proof. If I wanted to voice a controversial belief, I would have said that I think Homeland should be paying more attention to Dana Brody, or that I don’t think the ex-porn-star champagne ads on SNL are even remotely funny. (We’ll get to those later, hopefully, so long as I’m not murdered by an angry mob of people who think acrylic nails and anal sex are hilarious in any context.) No, in saying that I think The Good Wife is the best show on television, I was simply stating a version of a now popular maxim: The Good Wife is the best show on NETWORK television.

My claim, in other words, was not an outlier for its assertion of Good Wife’s quality; it was an outlier because I didn’t qualify it. Allow me to state unequivocally: I think The Good Wife is the best show on television. And I’m including Netflix Original Series here as well. We can have some conversations about Mad Men, Justified, Breaking Bad before it ended, Girls when it’s good, Louie when it’s on, but I dare anybody to name a television show currently airing that is better than The Good Wife. (And don’t you dare say Homeland.) It’s taken a compelling premise — the resurrection of a disgraced political wife — and turned it into an endlessly re-generating engine of cultural commentary. It’s filled with more boffo supporting performances than I can count. It’s wryly funny and convincingly conversant with 21st century technology. It’s unembarrassed, curious, and smart about sex in, like, three different age ranges (though Kalinda sometimes reads less as a queer character than a kind of sexual superhero unbound by earthly Sexx Laws). It has thoughtful and ambivalent things to say about religion, RELIGION, I tell you! And, as the world of the show has expanded, it’s gotten surprisingly good at juggling multiple intersecting plotlines and spaces.

But it has fallen prey to the now-conventional wisdom that network television is incapable of producing work at the level of cable or premium cable. HBO’s slogan used to be, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO,” but, increasingly, HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX are not only TV, they’re the only TV that matters. The revolutionaries have become a sort of critical mainstream. And as to NBC, ABC, CBS, and FOX, the consensus seems to be, “It’s not TV, it’s garbage.” Or, rather, “It’s not TV, it’s Network TV.” It seems like only yesterday that we were talking about cable’s nascent takeover of the circuits of prestige — the phenomenon of cable drama’s beatification began far earlier, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that cable drama essentially and uncontroversially took over the Emmys, for instance. But those cultural gains have calcified today into hardened tradition. To say that The Good Wife is the best show on network is to deliver, right now, a kind of back-handed compliment. It’s great, compared to NCIS. This is a decent restaurant, for Topeka. All the girls say I’m pretty fly, for a white guy.

There are, of course, amazing television series on cable and premium cable, and the shows that HBO and AMC and Showtime produce both make up a majority of the archive for our critical conversations and get a kind of head-start from critics and viewers alike. Many more critics, for instance, kept watch on the potential greatness of a crummy premium cable drama like Ray Donovan before it premiered than were even remotely interested in a great network series like Sleepy Hollow. Premium cable series, in other words, are classic until proven otherwise and networks series schlock until they prove themselves the exception. (And we’re certainly not immune to this: see, for example, our coverage of the perfectly fine Masters of Sex as opposed to, well, the spectacular Good Wife.)

Hopefully we can talk about this coverage bias and the hierarchies of taste involved a little more this season. A lot of it, I think, has to do with the fact that many of the best series on network right now — Good Wife and Scandal specifically — get smooched with the “soap opera” kiss of death whenever they fly too close to the sun. You may think you are getting something out of this viewing experience, but those shows are just empty, case-of-the-week, love triangle, political conspiracy calories. This past week, T-Bone Burnett publicly exited Nashville — his wife’s series — bitterly muttering about how the network was trying to turn a “drama about real musicians’ lives” into a “soap opera.” This comment is in keeping with the public perception of what a “soap opera” is — that is, fun but not worthy. But as much as Callie Khouri may be feeling pressure to amp up the car crashes and infidelities — we heard the same story about Smash — and thus dilute the gritty realism(?) at the show’s heart, series like Good Wife and Scandal don’t feel forced. Rather, they — like Mad Men and Homeland on cable — embrace and adapt that soapiness. The soap opera, like the police procedural or the medical drama or the will-they-won’t-they sitcom is just another piece of TV’s generic history with which this generation of showrunners can play.

I’m 1000% sure that Annie has some words on this subject, and I don’t want to spend too much time harping on categorization or taste and value distinctions because as incensed as I am by the implicit attitude some people cop toward The Good Wife, I’m far more purely and genuinely excited by what that show does week to week. After last week’s insanely entertaining and deceptively paradigm-shifting episode “Hitting the Fan,” Richard Lawson wrote at The Atlantic Wire that not only is The Good Wife the “best drama on network television” — grrr! — but that it’s better than it ever was before. I’m inclined to agree (with the latter). In the weeks leading up to the end of Breaking Bad, we witnessed a fairly common rhetoric based in the idea that that series was something like the Chris Traeger of television series: not an ounce of fat, engineered with the care and efficiency of a micro-chip. The concept of a mistake — a character that doesn’t work out, a weird diversion, really anything not suited to the series’ ultimate perfection and eventual Ascension Into Heaven to sit at the Right Hand of the Father — became anathema. But that’s not how that series or any other really works. And The Good Wife, bless its heart, has made its share of mistakes, the most grievous of which have honestly been fumbled attempts to create foils — a competing investigator with the personality of a robot, an ex-husband who moonlights as rhythm guitarist for Driveshaft — for Kalinda Sharma, the aforementioned leather-jacketed, dormant supervolcano of an investigator played by the Emmy-winning Archie Panjabi. That said, these are the mistakes of a series working at an already very high level — the Fat Betties, the specks of dust in the micro-chip.

But, again, at the risk of jinxing, this season has been impeccably crafted so far. Lawson, in his post, expresses concern that the series is moving at such a blistering pace and burning so many bridges behind it — thus creating a potentially unwieldy number of new places, characters, and dynamics from Springfield to the offices of Florrick Agos and Associates — that it will fail to hold together. I understand this anxiety and share it to some extent, but I think it also highlights one of the things that’s most appealing, most ambitious, and, ultimately, most un-cable-like about The Good Wife: its speed.

Over the past several years, there’s been a lot of writing in praise of slow television. From The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to Enlightened to the deservedly-praised first season of The Walking Dead, one of the characteristics we’ve come to value in prestige television is the willingness to take time telling a story, to let “nothing” happen for the span of an episode, to take advantage of space and creative freedom to build a world where spectators live rather than one through which they are shuttled. (The merciless pacing of Breaking Bad’s final season was notable if only for how uncharacteristic it was for a show that spent the better part of its first season killing one guy.) They take the logic of the procedural to an obsessive, transcendent extreme. They are unafraid to step away from main characters or isolate them, a practice that has led to the current vogue for “bottle episodes.” (The second season of Girls, certainly influenced by the work of Louis C.K., felt like a collection of loosely inter-connected short films occasionally punctuated by crass, annoying “plot” episodes.)

The Good Wife is not slow. It’s busy, it’s lusty, it’s fast. Like its spiritual sister Scandal, it’s transfigured the Sorkinian walk-and-talk — and even parodied it by shooting part of a recent cold open from the POV of a confused iPad affixed to a Segway scooter trying to follow Alicia Florrick around the office. It’s built an elaborately detailed world that includes courtrooms, offices, two different domestic spaces, two different governor’s offices, jails, and sexy sexy elevators, and that’s peopled with the Florrick family, main lawyers, associates, rival lawyers, lawyers for lawyers, judges, military judges, political consultants, politicians, journalists, and con artists. It’s not that cable series haven’t built worlds as richly detailed as this — indeed, it’s a hallmark of the recent television revolution and a quality in The Good Wife that keeps it in the conversation — but those shows are willing to confine action sometimes. They’re willing to cordon off an area or zoom in on one character to the exclusion of all others. Part of the precarious excitement of The Good Wife is that it wants constantly, gluttonously to consume and occupy all of its spaces every week. At its best, The Good Wife can be everywhere at once.

BUT HOW? Since the beginning, one of The Good Wife’s stand-out traits has been its authentic, adult sexuality. A premise about the pitfalls of infidelity, it could have easily become prudish or sexless itself. But Alicia Florrick is not a celibate to the cause of political rehabilitation. The ambivalent and compromised center of the series, she’s always been a protagonist of appetites, ambitions, desires personal and professional. (The knock-you-on-your-ass line from last week was Alicia’s breathy, mid-coital, “You want me to lean in? How’s that?”) And these have been both the foundation of her feminist heroism and her occasional downfall.

But the unit of measure for that sexuality, and the heart of this show’s out-of-control time signature, is the quickie. There have been precious few languorous sexual encounters in this series that is full of dalliances of all kinds. Especially between Alicia and Peter — though, also between Alicia and Will, as the memory of their bathroom encounter two weeks ago reminds us — The Good Wife writes to the quickie. Short, passionate, explosive — The Good Wife refuses to take its time because sometimes it’s better not to. I think we can profitably read this series as one based on that kind of ping-pong sensuality, the logic that anything worth doing and any motivation worth expressing can be expressed in a rush.

Because it’s not just the sex. In “Hitting the Fan,” the courtroom disputes are so fast as to be almost surreal, decisions handed down, fates decided. The jokes fly quickly and by inference. Traumas and set-backs quickly compound like multi-car pile-ups. From Alicia and Peter’s ambitions to the broad arc of Lockhart Gardner, The Good Wife is a show about the tension between impulse and plan, spontaneous event and long history, chaos and order, the Dynamo and the Virgin. The show establishes its form through choreography, the perfectly precise rhythm of a dancer kicking her feet a hair’s breadth from another dancer’s face; it transcends that form by showing the occasional breakdown of that choreography. And the characters who are valorized, who are given our deepest love, are those who can move at that speed. Cary’s sentimentality and softness let Diane out-pace him, Peter’s improvisatory footwork lets him outstep Will, Alicia’s unerring desire to not be held down, back, or to the side gives her the ability to think past the men who try to hold her. We perceive the depth of these characters, not through long tearful moments or time spent looking into their eyes, but through the totally unique, totally dynamic, and fully personal way that they negotiate these dances. We gain intimacy by understanding precisely how and when Alicia Florrick does or does not fall.

Over the past few years, Homeland has received accolades for taking the breakneck plot of a show like 24 and slowing it down to a glacial pace. That was an innovation and one that — despite the current state of that series — was justly influential. It’s a show about the long con, about the slow burn of betrayal, guilt, love. The Good Wife’s innovation has been not just rejecting that kind of slowness and embracing the speed of this kind of show, but in making it quicker, bigger, more breathtakingly efficient. It’s a feat of virtuosity, of boundless, foolish interest in its characters and in their machinations. When the showrunners can control this outlandishly deep and wide swath of humanity, it’s exhilarating. When they can’t, it’s even better.

Elsbeth Tascioni out!

Phil.

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