We get down on the proliferation of cop procedurals and legal shows on network television around here, which is as it should be. There are too many of them, and few of them are worth the effort of picking up the remote. But if you take a gander at the Fall 2009 television season, you might notice something surprising: There are six medical shows (not including “Scrubs,” which returns at mid-season), 17 shows that involve some sort of law enforcement figure, and only two shows that take place largely in a courtroom. One of those is “Law and Order,” which nobody watches anymore, except in syndication (hence, its spot on Friday nights), and the other is a show that most people probably didn’t even realize was a legal drama until they tuned in last night: CBS’s “The Good Wife.”
I, for one, like to have a decent legal drama on the schedule somewhere — they’re televised comfort food. Granted, I do prefer legal shows of the David E. Kelley variety or at least those that deftly combine humor, pathos, and moral outrage (“Boston Legal” will be sorely missed), but for those who need their courtroom fix, you could do a lot worse than “The Good Wife.”
If you’re familiar at all with CBS’s pervasive television campaigns for “The Good Wife,” you’ll probably feel a little mislead if you watch the show. It looks like a nighttime soap that revolves around a politician’s wife (Julianna Margulies) dealing the aftermath of her husband’s very public, very embarrassing affair with a prostitute, as well as the scandal that surrounds his abuse of office charges. However, that aspect of “The Good Wife” is introduced and, mostly, disposed of within the first minute of the pilot. In the opening scene, Julianna Margulies, who plays Alicia Florrick, is shown standing next to her husband during a press conference in which he admits the affair and asks for forgiveness.
Cut to six months later, and Alicia has just started a new job at a corporate law firm as a junior associate, where she’s been assigned to pro bono cases (because, of course she has: There’s no dramatic element to corporate law). She hasn’t practiced in 15 years, and it turns out, in fact, that she’s competing with another junior associate (“Gilmore Girls’” Matt Czuchry) for the position. Christine Baranski plays her bitchy, uppity mentor at the firm (has anyone ever seen Christine Baranski, Jessica Walter, and Susan Sullivan in the same room? No, of course you haven’t. They’re the same person), and Josh Charles plays her boss, Will Gardner. Back in the old days, Will and Alicia were young colleagues together (and Josh Charles, the primary reason I decided to watch “The Good Wife,” is damn near as boyish as he was back in Dead Poets Society. If I were of a certain persuasion, I’d eat that man up with a spoon.).
The rub, here, is that Alcia is coming into the position with a lot of baggage. In addition to being a much older junior associate, she not only has to deal with her embarrassing public image as a stand-by-your-man pol’s wife (who is now in prison), everyone in her field seems to hate her husband (who was attorney general), not least of which is the slimy District Attorney, who leaked the sex tape that resulted in her husband’s (Chris Noth, in a guest role) downfall. Add to that being a mom, living with her husband’s mother, and raising two teenagers coping with their father’s infidelities at high school, and you’ve got a decently compelling premise with a modicum of staying power.
“The Good Wife,” comes from executive producers, Ridley and Tony Scott, and the pilot episode shows it. It doesn’t have their frenzied editing styles, but it’s certainly glossy. It’s also a straight-up, heavily scored and humorless legal drama. The first case — about an ex-wife accused of killing her husband — also turns on evidentiary matters, instead of legal ones, as I suspect most of the show’s cases will. It’s a shame, too, because cases that revolve around evidentiary matters aren’t that much different than police procedurals (it’s all about finding the real killer, and not about using the law to get the suspects off, a far more interesting and difficult storyline).
Still and all, it’s a well-made, competently-written courtroom drama that’s excellently acted and features a strong cast of television veterans. It’s not exactly must-see television, but it may be the best thing on on a weak Tuesday slate of programs.
(*apologies for the lame headline. It was just too appropriate to pass up).