Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Good Good Wife

John McFetridge

When I first saw ads for The Good Wife I didn’t want to like it.

Partly because it was taking up a valuable CBS timeslot I was hoping the show I was working on, The Bridge, would get and partly because The Good Wife looked like a quickie, ripped-from-the-headlines mess the marketing department came up with.

As usual, I was wrong. The Good Wife is a very good show on the strength of its very strong writing.

If you haven’t seen it, the show is, to quote the official CBS website, “a drama starring Emmy Award winner Julianna Margulies as a wife and mother who boldly assumes full responsibility for her family and re-enters the workforce after her husband's very public sex and political corruption scandal lands him in jail.”

So for a hard-boiled, noir kind of guy like me that’s pretty much every turn-off imaginable. And then, to make matters worse, the job she returns to is as an entry-level lawyer with a big, corporate law firm – about the least interesting, least sympathetic job I can think of, but one TV shows keep doing over and over.

Here, though, the stresses of the job are used to develop the character of the good wife, Alicia, and dig a little deeper. First of all there’s the long hours required for the job. Child care is provided by Alicia’s mother-in-law, a nice complication and another good character as she doesn’t believe her son is guilty of anything, or that if he is certainly Alicia must be to blame somehow. Oh, she never says she thinks Alicia is to blame but those looks and pauses and lack of eye contact between two women who’ve spent time in the same family, involved with the same man in different ways, dealing with the kids – it’s really very good.

At work Alicia is among many first year lawyers and they won’t all get hired on full-time. The other lawyers ar all young, ambitious, well-off and well-educated. Well, have you ever been in a big corporate law firm’s office? Seemed right to me. So Alicia, with two teenage kids at home and a husband in jail is at a bit of a disadvantage. The situation is ripe for cliché but so far the show avoids them with good characterization.

A big issue when writing a TV show these days is episodic vs season-long arc. This came up all the time on The Bridge. The writers want to do season-long arcs and really dig into the characters and situations but the network wants stories that wrap up each episode. CBS told us they wanted it to be episodic but then as the notes started to come in for the scripts they’d be asking for more things that tied into previous episodes.

Everybody must get these notes because these days every show has some longer arcs.

But The Good Wife is a master class in how to write an episodic network series with a season-long arc.

Each episode is its own mystery. And not always a murder mystery, last week’s (not last night's which was a repeat) was about an arson in a science lab, one episode was about an insurance fraud and one was about judicial corruption. Tough stories to make compelling drama, but The Good Wife does it with very good mystery conventions of finding clues and piecing together the puzzle. There was even a murder-mystery story that involved a writer whose wife had a good job and made a lot more money than he did. I can say that a lot of the emotions in that show sure rang true.

And then there’s the longer story arc of the husband’s “sex and political corruption scandal.” First of all there’s the effect it has on the family and then there’s the part where he admits the sex scandal part but denies the corruption and is trying to get a new trial.

The shows ties all this together very well by having the two teenaged kids sneaking around like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys digging up evidence that their dad is telling the truth about being framed for the political scandal.

There’s just enough of this longer mystery to keep me interested week after week but not so many hanging threads that I get frustrated. The weekly mystery being tied up so well helps a lot.

Aspiring TV writers are usually required to write an episode of a current show, a “spec,” as a sample of their work to show producers that they can take on the voice and style of the show. I have a feeling there will be a lot of spec scripts of The Good Wife written this year. It’s a good show to use because the raw material of good characters is already there and it would be a great way to show how you can write a one episode mystery and develop characters. Of course, at the same time it would also reveal any writing weaknesses because the raw material is so good.


Scott D. Parker said...

I've watched this one from afar. I, too, thought it was a soon-to-be-canceled show. As it's kept going, I've become intrigued since I don't have anything to watch on Tuesday (except Lost) or Wednesday (whatever day The Good Wife airs). I think I'll give it a chance now that I know it's good. Not the best way to judge a show but one that certainly works without any heartbreak at a premature cancellation.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Even my husband has come around. The arc story of her husband's troubles and the current case manage to both be strong each week. Great writing, great acting, good production values.
A pleasant surprise. Her performance just floors me-I know the female investigator is getting all the kudos, but JM anchors that show with her low-keyed-I am not a victim-portrayal.

John McFetridge said...

I'm with you, Scott, I didn't want to start watching a show that I knew would have a long story arc that might get cancelled half-way through. I had to do a lot of scrambling to see every episode of Friday Night Lights.

It will be interesting to see what The Good Wife does in season two with the story of the husband's corruption charges.

Yes, Patti, I agree, Julianne Margulies is very good and does hold the show together. I really like the way her character is conficted between getting on with life but not wanting to give up on the life she'd built. You can see she wants to get mad and scream but knows that it won't help and would only make things at home worse.

Thea said...

As a New Yorker, I've lived thru the Spitzer scandal and the current Governor's picadillos. And my husband put me through a very similar, publically humiliating affair as well. To be honest, I didn't want to see this show, but now it's one of my favs. Juliana M plays a character who really tries to hold it together and stay cool but once you cross her, watch out. A weaker woman would have given up on her husband a long time ago. I think the show has great writers and I really like that PI as well.

John McFetridge said...

Thea, I'm sorry to hear that your husband put you through something like that.

Steve Weddle said...

Looked like hokum to start with, but your take sold me. Adding it to the lineup.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like this show owes a substantial debt premise-wise (not to mention title-wise) to Stewart O'Nan's superb novel of the same name. Yet another sign that one of today's best but most criminally under-appreciated writers is likely to remain under the radar. What a shame ...

John McFetridge said...

Yes, you're right, anonymous, it's a shame Stewart O'Nan is under the radar, even after a collaboration with Stephen King. Though, Late Night at the Lobster was awfully successful. I'v never read his The Good Wife but I'll for it now, thanks.

It's like Jonothon Dee, whose St. Famous was also a great bok, a real work of literature that may have been lost in its 'torn from the headlines' marketing.

I don't usually respond to anonymous posts, but anything that points out the plight of the novelist is different ;)