Why The Good Wife is the 21st-century equivalent of Charles Dickens

Every episode is crammed with story, side to side and top to bottom.

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Based on the trailers I saw before its opening season, I dismissed The Good Wife as the TV equivalent of chick lit and avoided it. This was a mistake, but a lucky one; when I finally got around to the show, and fell into it headlong, I was able to watch all seven seasons from beginning to end, growing increasingly involved as Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) and the characters revolving around her grew, changed and sometimes died (there’s a death in season five that shook me badly). Here’s the thing: The Good Wife is a smart show, one that was written, directed and acted by smart people. The dialogue crackles with wit. Taken as a whole, the evolving story – call it Alicia’s Progress – is an acute (and often piercingly funny) look at Big Law in the big city, an acute (and often moving) examination of how a pair of good people try to mend a badly broken marriage, and a cautionary tale of How We Live Now (hint: there’s a lot of drinking).

Yet the most winning aspect of Wife, at least from this viewer’s perspective, is that every episode is crammed with story, side to side and top to bottom. Multiple plot threads stuff each 43-minute outing, often intersecting but rarely snarling up; in a way, it’s like watching rush-hour traffic running at 90 miles an hour with nary a collision. Much of my fascination with the show, I admit, was professional: exactly how are they doing that? Of course, like any series that runs for over 100 episodes, there are occasional stumbles. The investigator Kalinda Sharma (played by Archie Panjabi) is charming and sexy but basically unbelievable. A subplot in which the government attorney Josh Perotti (Kyle MacLachlan) falls for the nutty but brilliant lawyer Elsbeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston) strives for madcap comedy but far overshoots the mark. Some of the judges (we see the same four or five again and again) begin to overdo their shtick. Alicia’s younger brother, Owen (Dallas Roberts), dances close to the stereotypical “Oh-my-God, look at those shoes” gay man. Mostly, however, it all works like a charm.

In the best 21st-century TV programmes, we feel the enfolding warmth that made Charles Dickens so beloved. Thorny as it can be, The Good Wife is that kind of show – the kind where you approach the concluding episodes with dread, because you don’t want it to be over. 

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This article appears in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016