Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Feminine Wiles: Thoughts on The Good Wife

Looking back at what I've written about The Good Wife this year, it's both surprising and a little embarrassing to see how long it took me to come out as an unabashed fan of this show.  Unlike Community, another of my new favorites which had a so-so pilot and took a few weeks to come into its own, The Good Wife was already firing on all cylinders in its pilot episode.  The problem was in me, and in my difficulty in seeing myself as someone who could become fannish over a lawyer show.  I know I'm not alone in this--many of my friends have expressed shock at their growing affection for the series, and I've even encountered one genuinely resentful response from a fan complaining that their entire internet circle had gone over to a series whose topic they found so completely uninteresting.  But after an entire season in which The Good Wife has often been the TV-watching highlight of my week, it's time to face facts, and ask the more interesting question: why this show and not others?

The fact is that as a lawyer show, The Good Wife is only middling.  The cases of the week are rarely very complicated or interesting, and the writers themselves often seem to share this sentiment, abandoning standalone stories half-told or wrapping them up in a few lines of dialogue (see, for example, the otherwise quite excellent season finale).  But then, most lawyer shows aren't really about lawyers any more than doctor shows are about practicing medicine or cop shows are about protecting and serving.  What these occupations have in common is that they throw their practitioners in the path of many different clients/patients/citizens, each with their own, probably dramatic, story, since most of us don't approach a doctor, lawyer or policeman unless something's gone wrong, and that they are all capable of producing moments of great intensity.  Despite the oft-repeated claim that American TV is obsessed with the workplace, there's really only one series, The Office, that actually describes work as most of us would recognize it.  Most other workplace series simply use that environment to weave together single-serving guest stories with the main characters' ongoing arcs.  Which is exactly what The Good Wife does, so once again, what sets it apart from other lawyer shows?

There are two answers to that question.  The first is that The Good Wife is, quite simply, spectacularly well-written, paying a great deal of care and attention to each of its main and recurring characters (if not, most of the time, to the one-off clients) and featuring sharp dialogue and strong acting (for which we can apparently thank Julianna Margulies's insistence that the show be filmed in New York, making it the go-to destination for moonlighting theater actors who can no longer rely on Law & Order to pay the rent).  The second and more interesting answer is that unlike most workplace series, the overarching stories woven through the client of the week plots aren't primarily concerned with relationships.  Yes, the question of whether Alicia Florrick is going to forgive her philandering, possibly corrupt politician husband Peter, or run off with her old friend and current boss Will, has been central to the show's first season, but even that romantic storyline is inextricable from the story of Peter's legal problems, the still-open question of his corruption, and his political ambitions.  When it comes right down to it The Good Wife is a show about politics, which makes it, I think, the first time this subject has graced the American television screen since The West Wing went off the air four years ago.

This is not to say that The Good Wife is merely Peter's story, to which Alicia provides a window.  Politics extends far beyond Peter's nascent campaign for state's attorney.  As The Good Wife has it, politics is the air that all of the characters are breathing, the water through which they swim.  Politics is the reason that Alicia got a job at Stern, Lockheart & Gardner and the reason she kept it instead of her more productive colleague Cary.  It's the reason that Diane is approached for a position as a judge, and the reason that she's dropped from consideration after helping to expose the corruption of another judge.  It plays a part in every single interaction between defense and prosecution lawyers, and between different law enforcement agencies.  The Good Wife very quickly makes it clear that the division between public and private power in the Chicago it describes is thin and possibly nonexistent, that amassing power and influence in a firm like Lockheart & Gardner can be a means of amassing it in public office, and that having connections to public officials can be a stepping stone in private practice.  As much as it is about politics, then, The Good Wife is about power, and specifically the kind of power that has been, until only a few decades ago and in some places still is, kept out of the hands of women.

What excited me about The Good Wife's pilot even as I scoffed at the possibility of becoming the fan of a lawyer show was that it wasn't simply a show about women, but a show about women in a man's world.  That's still remarkably rare.  It's still very common for television series to field only one female character of any importance, whose job is basically to be The Girl.  If she's the main character and the series takes place in a largely masculine environment, then she's usually explicitly or implicitly special, able to defeat the patriarchy, or simply wave it out of existence, by the sheer virtue of her awesomeness.  Other series focus on a largely- or exclusively-female enclave, whose members might venture into the male-dominated world but always with each other's support (this is no longer such a common approach when it comes to women, but it's still applied to non-white or gay communities).  The Good Wife is unique in that, though it is a story about a woman in a man's world, it surrounds her with examples of other women in exactly the same position, none of whom are super-special, none of whom get a pass on dealing with the patriarchy, none of whom have chosen to band together and leave the world of men behind (there are, presumably, such women in Alicia's world, but her choices mean that she's not exposed to them).  All of these women want the same thing--power--and each of them has come up with a different strategy of achieving it without waiting for men to hand it to her, sometimes working against her femininity, sometimes trading on it.

(The exception is Kalinda, which is the reason that I've started to sour on the character.  When she was introduced Kalinda seemed to represent the confidence of inexperienced youth as opposed to Alicia's knocked-about middle age.  Later episodes skewed the character older--which was a good idea for no other reason than that, lovely as she is, Archie Panjabi simply doesn't look 25--without dampening her confidence.  On the contrary, they increased it and accommodating responses of the people who bump up against it.  The result is that Kalinda is close to becoming the kind of female character to whom the rules, magically and inexplicably, don't apply, which makes her a lot less interesting, and an incongruous figure in the show's landscape.)

The most powerful woman on The Good Wife's cast is Diane Lockheart, a senior partner at Alicia's firm and the only woman on the cast who has gotten where she was planning to go with her career (at this point, the only way up for Diane is becoming a judge--which briefly became an option and was just as briefly withdrawn--or running for office, which she hasn't expressed an interest in).  Between her age and what we've heard about her past, it's a fair guess that Diane got to where she is the old-fashioned, second-wave feminist way--by banging on tables and working twice as hard to be thought half as good as her male colleagues (being the scion of old Chicago political family probably didn't hurt either).  The Good Wife has a lot of respect for Diane--it's probably one of the writers' best decisions that they decided to walk her back from the stern and possibly resentful authority figure she was in the pilot--while at the same time making it clear that her path to power isn't one that a lot of modern women would choose.  For one thing, it leaves room at the top only for extraordinary women, and probably only for those willing to forgo having a family, and for another, it's a method designed to face head-on the sexism that Diane encountered in her youth--a mindset that can't imagine women having any sort of power.  In the circles in which Alicia and the women of her generation move, that kind of sexism has been mostly replaced by a more subtle kind to which Diane's approach may no longer be suited (a point that is brought home when Diane falls head over heels for wannabe Marlboro Man Kurt McVeigh, who has a signed picture of Sarah Palin in his office).

The younger women that Alicia encounters take advantage of sexism as often as it takes advantage of them.  Recurring character Patty Nyholm feigns pregnancy-related distress in order to justify pulling her client out of a deposition that is going badly, and in her second appearance brings her newborn child to an emergency court convened at a hospital, and uses the baby's crying and demands for food to gain continuances.  Another young lawyer amps up her Midwestern wholesomeness to present a figure of naive helplessness, in order to secure leniency from the judge and the sympathies of the jury when she, for example, blanches at the sexual exploits of Alicia's client.  Most interesting is Alicia's new rival for Will's affections, law student Giada Cabrini.  In a mock court presided over by Will, Giada uses feminine wiles to triumph, taking advantage of Will's attraction to her to get him to advise her on her case, then arguing that he should be disqualified for favoritism towards her.  When she pursues him romantically, her tactics are aggressive--she takes him to dinner at a fancy restaurant where she's well known, not-too-subtly drops it into the conversation that she's the daughter of the third richest man in Europe, and later sends him a very expensive gift.  In other words, Giada uses traditionally feminine tactics in a professional setting, and traditionally masculine tactics in a romantic one.  What interests and surprises me about The Good Wife is how ambivalent it is about all of these tactics.  Alicia clearly disapproves of her opponents using their femininity to score points in court (though she's not above it herself--when recruited by the firm's divorce lawyer, she immediately assumes the role of the scorned woman eager to avenge herself on all men in order to scare the opposing counsel into settling), but the characters who do so are so vividly and sympathetically portrayed that it's impossible not to admire them just a little.  Why play fair, the characters seem to be saying.  When the deck is stacked against you, why not use every card in your hand?

But then, that is the central question of The Good Wife.  In the vicious, dog-eat-dog world of private and public politics, where does one draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable abuse of privilege?  Is Cary wrong to drum up support from the firm's senior associates when he learns that Will and Diane are going to choose between him and Alicia?  Is Alicia wrong to ask her husband's spin doctor Eli Gold to help her get the clients that will save her job?  Is Eli wrong to expect quid pro quo for doing this?  When Peter pushes his would-be political supporters to switch their legal services to Lockheart & Gardner, is he promising quid pro quo, and is Alicia wrong to accept these clients?  There's something almost laughable when Cary--young, white, well-educated, obviously born to privilege--complains to Alicia that he doesn't have the advantage of her political connections, and that it isn't fair that she should have gotten the job instead of him because of those connections, but the fact remains that nearly every character in the show is privileged in some ways and disadvantaged in others.  So the question becomes, how does one exploit that privilege, and overcome those disadvantages, in an honorable way?  Is there ever a way of doing so?

The one problem I have with The Good Wife's handling of his question is, oddly, Alicia herself.  I enjoy the show's characterization of her (and Margulies's restrained, layered performance) very much,  but what's missing from it is what every other character, male or female, seems to possess--a thirst for power.  Alicia walked away from a job at a high-powered law firm to raise her children, and given that her two love interests seem to have quite a few character traits in common it could simply be that she's rather be at the side of someone powerful than possess that power herself.  But the choice to make her not only uninterested in power but also the moral center of the series has some unfortunately implications.  It's become a pernicious commonplace, not only of fiction about politics but of politics in the real world, that ambition is always a hallmark of evil, and that the only people who deserve power are the ones who truly don't want it.  It's an attitude that gives us leaders who are either accomplished liars or easily-led fools.  That Alicia feels such disdain for the games of influence and power that surround her (even as she occasionally plays them herself) suggests that the writers don't believe it's ever possible to be both ambitious and moral.  It would be more interesting to watch Alicia try to figure out where her lines fall if she wanted her job for more than just an escape from her tangled domestic situation and a means of supporting her family, and if her much-vaunted saintliness didn't sometimes shade into breathtaking naivete.

Of course, that may very well be on the cards--Alicia has only started to wake up from her long dormancy, and I wouldn't be surprised if some way down the line she begins to express her own political ambitions (for all the Clinton vs. Palin undertones of Diane's courtship with Kurt McVeigh, it's clearly Alicia who is the Hilary Clinton analogue on this show).  There are, in fact, a lot of interesting avenues of story that The Good Wife's characters could go down, and the show's writers have certainly proven that they can handle them well.  That said, despite my finally-confessed fannishness for this show, I don't think that The Good Wife will ever be the sort of show that leaves me desperate to know what happens next (which is why the season-ending cliffhanger, with Alicia caught between joining Peter on the stage on which he's just announced his candidacy for state's attorney and answering Will's phone call, seems like a trite and unnecessary device).  There is no easily conceived end-point for this story that I'd like to see, no outcome I'm rooting for (I don't know, for example, whether I want Alicia to divorce Peter or not).  Instead, what interests me about the show are the unanswerable questions at its core: how to exercise power and privilege without losing sight of your morality?  How to be woman in a man's world?  So long as The Good Wife keeps highlighting the complicated ways that its characters and guest characters try to address these questions, I suspect I'll remain a fan.


Anonymous said...

Isn't it great to have an intelligent show on television? And one with grown-up women, too.

grrljock said...

Thanks for the interesting post on this show. I've only seen one episode, which happens to be the season finale, and was quite impressed. Your post goes a long way into explaining why it was better than the average network TV lawyer show.

George Pedrosa said...

"but the characters who do so are so vividly and sympathetically portrayed that it's impossible not to admire them just a little"

I can understand the other two examples that you used, but how in the world can you sympathise with a woman who uses her baby to try and delay a medical procedure, knowing that will cause a pregnant woman to lose her baby? It's not even about representing a client, it's about cheating and causing the death of a baby in the process.

Also, it seems unfair to say that Alicia also uses these tactics, since it wasn't her idea, she was just following orders and all she really did was be present (in fact, it was the client who used her and kept implying that she would be vengeful at the trial). I seem to recall that she was angry at the client for using her.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I was talking about Alicia's second encounter with the firm's divorce lawyer (the case involving the rock star's wife) in which she sinks her teeth into the scorned wife role with gusto. But more broadly, I don't see what the difference is between Alicia using her femininity to score points for her client and Patty Nyholm doing the same. We can quibble with Patty's willingness to represent that particular client, but that strikes me as a completely separate issue, and then we'd have to deal with the fact that the firm has represented a chemical company in a class action suit by people claiming that it poisoned them, that Will actively sought the custom of a gangster he knew to have murdered a witness, and that Alicia herself zealously defended a man who viciously murdered his wife.

George Pedrosa said...

"I was talking about Alicia's second encounter with the firm's divorce lawyer (the case involving the rock star's wife) in which she sinks her teeth into the scorned wife role with gusto."

I haven't watched that episode yet. My mistake.

"We can quibble with Patty's willingness to represent that particular client, but that strikes me as a completely separate issue, and then we'd have to deal with the fact that the firm has represented a chemical company in a class action suit by people claiming that it poisoned them, that Will actively sought the custom of a gangster he knew to have murdered a witness, and that Alicia herself zealously defended a man who viciously murdered his wife."

My problem wasn't with her representing the client, but with the fact that she cheated: she used her baby to try and delay a medical procedure, and the fact that the direct result of that action would be the death of another person's baby, coupled with her incapacity to show any regret or even a slight bit of aprehension, made the character very disturbing and extremely unsympathetic in my eyes. I understand that the show tackles the ethical issue of representing "guilty" clients, and I admire it for that, I'm just mentioning a minor quibble that I had when I read your comment describing this particular character as sympathetic. But I agree about the other ones, and the fact that the show portrays a mix of sympathetic and unsympathetic characters using these feminine tactics makes the issue even more complex, in my opinion.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I guess I just don't see where cheating comes into it. Every character on the show uses underhand tactics to get ahead in court - concealing witnesses, burying evidence, lying by omission. If Patty's tactics are cheating, then they're all cheats. Again, though I don't condone Patty's tactics any more than I condone the simpering of Dylan Baker's character's lawyer or the way Alicia uses Peter's contacts to keep her job, the issue to my mind is the clients Patty has chosen to represent, not how she represents them.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Sorry, by 'Dylan Baker's character's lawyer,' I meant the lawyer representing the woman suing Dylan Baker's character, whom Alicia is defending.

George Pedrosa said...

The difference I see between Patti's tactis and that of the Midwestern lawyer is that Patti outright tries to sabotage the trial, while the other character merely creates a persona to impress the jury and the judge. While both are tecnically cheating, at least the former allows due process to occur and doesn't try to tamper the trial. Will did something similar, helping an insurance company delay the payment of a poisoned baby's medical treatment by burying the competing lawyer in paper work, exausting the competition until the victim died, which is just as problematic as what Patti does. Besides, my problem with Patti's attitude isn't the cheating per se, but the immediate consequence of her attempt at sabotaging the trial: a woman will lose her baby. She knows that, even Will can't believe what she's doing and says something like "Patti, do you have any idea what you're doing?" (which is ironic and hypocritical, considering the previous case I mentioned). I'm not letting Alicia and Will off the hook either, but at least they show a level of aprehension and awareness of the ethical implications of their underhand tactics, while Patti simply doesn't care and, in fact, seems very pleased with her cleverness. That's what makes the character disturbing and hateful.

By the way, I need to thank you for pointing me to such a fascinating show.

Anonymous said...

I have just finished watching the first twelve episodes (I borrowed the DVD box from my municipal library) and would like to make a few remarks on the show (some of them pretty shallow, I must admit :-)).
First of all, I am a fan of your book reviews. I read your blog regularly (you are probably my favourite reviewer these days). When I read your thoughts on various TV series, though, I am often a little surprised and I ask myself: 'Why is she taking this so seriously - hey, it's only television.' Please don't misunderstand me, I am not trying to be disrespectful. It is just that my standard prejudice regarding US -TV shows goes a bit like this: it seems to me that these programmes are almost invariably made up of 1-20 % of artistically interesting material - the rest being rather trivial, formulaic stuff.
I do appreciate the fact that there are no angels or knights in shining armour in this series, and that it casts a rather gloomy light on the American judicial system (I mean the show could try to glorify it - and it is surely far from doing that). On the other hand every episode uses the conventions of courtroom drama and - as you mentioned above - its treatment is usually unoriginal: yes, the judges are fallible and the jurors easy to impress, but we viewers do not need to worry too much because in nine cases out of ten Julianna Margulies will work for 'good' clients and will manage to overcome all obstacles thrown into her way by her 'bad' adversaries.
And now, finally, to my shallowest point: I think "The Good Wife" suffers from the Matthew-McConaughey-disease. What does this mean? Many years ago, when the movie "Contact" came out, I read an interview with director Robert Zemeckis in which the interviewer told him "I am sure all male viewers will be relieved at the end that Matthew McConaughey and Jodie Foster do not become a couple." Zemeckis' reply was "Oh yes, men hate him."
Now my problem is that, like many male viewers, I do not feel much sympathy for aggressive alpha wolves like McConaughey - or Noth. We like actors like Cary Grant, George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, or Will Smith. Therefore, I am of course firmly on Will Gardner's side and feel almost unwell each time I have to put up with Noth's face. This is perhaps not a very intellectual way for disliking the show but then I do not think I have to be fair with a product 85 % of which constitute undemanding entertainment. :-)

Yours sincerely, Rainer Skupsch

Alexander said...

Interesting review. I've finally gotten around to watching the show in depth, and am finding it very interesting on a number of levels. Even the weakest element, the mystery of the week that, in at least the first half of the season depends too heavily on clear cut morality and uncovering a minor conspiracy, has its advantages. It's better than other lawyer shows I've seen at covering different aspects of the legal system, jury preparation, subpoening witnesses, crosschecking backgrounds. It shows more different angles than the usual heavy focus on big speeches and a few brushstrokes of trial strategy.

With another two seasons done, do you have any thoughts on where the show went after this? Did the second and third seasons (assuming you continued to watch) maintain this level of quality, maintain some of the doubts, improve? I'm likely to continue with the series in any case, based on your assessment I'd move that up or down in my To Watch file.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


My feelings about seasons two and three are pretty much of a piece with this article, which is somewhat mingled praise. The show certainly maintains its level of quality and in some ways - increasing its already deep bench of fascinating characters, finding even more interesting aspects of the legal system about which to tell stories - it even gets better. But there's never a lot of energy going to the overarching plot engine and after a few seasons that has the effect of making the show seem a little aimless - even as momentous events do occur in the characters' lives. I absolutely do recommend the second and third seasons - this is still, to my mind, the smartest and most satisfying drama on TV - but I recommend them more for their parts - the characters, the individual episode plots, and even individual scenes - than for any greater whole, which the show doesn't seem as interested in developing.

Zartaj said...

Thoughts on Alicia as of Season 7? Is the spirit of the show still alive and well?

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