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‘The Good Wife’ broke the CBS mould when it debuted in September 2009. Airing on a network which thrives on formulaic, franchise-friendly procedurals such as ‘CSI’, ‘Criminal Minds’, and ‘NCIS’, ‘The Good Wife’ represented a more hybridised type of drama than CBS was used to, with the series’ weekly, self-contained legal cases operating as a counter-balance to ongoing, character-driven storylines.
However, despite its departure from the CBS norm, ‘The Good Wife’ has developed into network television’s most critically lauded show while attracting a consistently high calibre of well-respected guest stars, ranging from Michael. J Fox and Mamie Gummer to recent additions Lisa Edelstein and Matthew Perry. The series has received multiple award nominations, including a Peabody Award for Excellence in 2010, and Emmy, Golden Globe, and consecutive Screen Actors Guild wins for its star Julianna Margulies.
Now in its third season, ‘The Good Wife’, which is set in Chicago but shot in New York, has delved deeper into the personal lives of several of its characters while still interweaving numerous social and political contexts in a manner not seen in any other network or cable drama.
Initially centred around Alicia Florrick, the humiliated wife of Illinois’ disgraced State’s Attorney, ‘The Good Wife’ has since evolved into an ensemble offering, exploring such issues as: political campaigning, inter-office power struggles, judicial bribery, economic woes, and technology’s growing impact in every facet of the professional and domestic spheres.
This season began with Alicia (Margulies) having separated from her husband Peter (Chris Noth) following his re-election as State’s Attorney and the discovery that he had had a sexual encounter with Kalinda Sharma (Emmy Award winner Archie Panjabi), the in-house investigator at Alicia’s law firm and Alicia’s closest friend.
In turn, Alicia embarked on a relationship with Will Gardner (Josh Charles), a senior partner at the firm, and was forced to work directly with her husband’s political campaigner Eli Gold (Alan Cumming) after she had used him as a political contact to beat out fellow attorney Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) for a job.
Agos later defected to the State’s Attorney’s Office, where he now works alongside Alicia’s husband and has been promoted to the position of Deputy State’s Attorney. Observing all of this is Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), the firm’s other senior partner and a staunch Democrat, whose Liberal convictions often clash with the needs and requirements of surviving in the legal field.
Reflecting on all of this, it is quite clear that ‘The Good Wife’ has moved far away from its original premise of a scorned ex-wife returning to the workplace. Now, it juggles multiple story arcs and long-simmering narrative tensions which could very well be overwhelming to the casual viewer accustomed to the plethora of modern day procedurals.
The series’ producers – led by husband/wife duo Robert and Michelle King, and supported by feature film heavyweights Ridley and Tony Scott – have stayed so committed to making ‘The Good Wife’ a multi-layered saga that it is now typically the only network drama to receive recognition at the major television award ceremonies.
Ironically, it is also one of CBS’ lowest-rated series and has yet to secure a syndication deal, despite it approaching its fourth year of production.
This divide between its critical reception and commercial performance is perhaps indicative of television’s growing trend towards targeting niche audiences in an effort to combat all-encompasing audience declines, with a series such as ‘NCIS’ regularly attracting 20 million viewers and zero critical acclaim, while a series such as ‘Mad Men’ rarely attracts 3 million viewers yet has won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series four years in a row. Thus, with a season-to-date average of 10.35 million viewers, ‘The Good Wife’ finds itself in something of a middle-ground position.
On-screen, however, the series is not concerning itself with the business side of television productions. Just eight episodes remain this season, and in that run of episodes audiences are expected to see: Alicia’s decision about whether to persevere with a divorce from her husband, and the personal and professional fallout which that would in turn trigger; Eli’s plans to have Peter run for governorship; and most interestingly the inter-office power struggles which are now certain to arise following Will’s six-month disbarment for stealing money from a client’s account.
In recent episodes, the writers have explored the current civil unrest in Syria, potential prejudices in military law, institutional manipulation in the United States Treasury Department, and prosecutorial complications arising from Chinese diplomatic immunity. As a result of engaging in such socially-volatile debates, it seems appropriate for ‘The Good Wife’ to step back and explore more insular conflicts of greater personal importance to the characters.
Yet, with its fearlessness over broaching so many hot-button issues on a mainstream network landscape, ‘The Good Wife’ seems certain to join the likes of ‘The Wire’ and ‘The West Wing’ as one of America’s most culturally resonant television dramas of the twenty-first century.