Saturday, January 15, 2011

Bad World, Good Wife

We don't watch much television, by which I mean following shows week to week. The one show we do watch regularly is The Good Wife on CBS on Tuesday nights. The acting is good and the stories are interesting and the point of view, figuring out what the show is up to, has also kept our attention.

I'm actually starting to think it's the most cynical show on television. Let me explain.

From the beginning, the law firm that Alicia Florek (Julianna Margulies) works for has been in financial trouble. The main goal of the two partners, Will Gardner (the wonderful Josh Charles who did so well in the Aaron Sorkin debut series Sports Night) and Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski, who seems to always be holding a martini even when she's not), has been to increase billings and make decisions that will keep the firm financially strong.

This is interesting in and of itself: the very likeable partners make no bones about the fact that their first priority is making money. Not in the "we support X number of employees and their families and they're all counting on us" way, but in the "I went into law to make money and now let's see how we can make the most we can, because that's the measure of success" kind of way.

Because their primary driver is money and keeping wealthy clients, the firm's principals' morality is in many ways slippery. The enemy on the show is clear: that privileged mercenary Cory (Matt Czuchy) who doesn't realize that he's no match to Alicia as a lawyer-- and can't compete with her anyway because she has a powerful husband and thus potential to bring in more money! Cory and the corrupt state's attorney who took Alicia's husband's job when he himself (the incomparable Chris Noth as Peter Florek) was disgraced, come across as sleazy and mean-spirited. But are they any moreso than the lawyers we like?

After the last episode, when Will Gardner and company tricked their young client and lied to him to try to get him to take a lesser sentence (thus leaving his pregnant girlfriend with the longer sentence), Alicia is uncomfortable with the tactics/strategy. However, her objections seem lame, because they're based on her belief in true love, not wanting to lie to the young man to turn him against his girlfriend. But she seems to accept the tactics ultimately, even participate, as she accepts her brother cheating on his lover (what is one to do?) and, though surprised, even accepts Diane's paranoia and move to siphon off clients/lawyers from the firm. Surprise is the closest thing to moral outrage on the show, at least when it comes to the principal characters (the "opposition" is always outraging us with their wiley ways and unsavory associations).

The title refers to Alicia Florek as "the good wife"  for standing by her husband after his public and humiliating (for her) affair, and throughout accusations of corruption. We're never sure if this is being questioned or not-- is it a virtue? Is it what she, as an individual, should do? As the second season progresses, one must ask-- does she have to leave all moral judgment at the door to stand by her man and her firm? On what basis is she "good"? Is loyalty the highest value, and is it required in a job as well as a marriage? By "keeping her marriage together" do we mean maintaining the lifestyle to which she and her family have become accustomed by working in a corrupt profession? Is she simply becoming acclimated to the world "as it really is" so that she'll realize it doesn't matter if her husband cheated on her or not? What is this show up to? It's definitely enough to keep us tuning in.

There have been law shows before that looked at the crass business side of law. L.A. Law was a good example. The divorce lawyer, the affairs, the ambulance-chasing and high profile, celebrity cases. It was over the top, but we didn't exactly like Arnie (Corbin Berenson) or some of the other characters. Even when we did like them, it wasn't because we saw ourselves in them.

The Good Wife is a very different show. These people are believable, everyday Chicagoans-- Middle America folks who have gotten where they are (we believe) in part because of their goodness and also because they're smart and likeable (like us). But maybe not. Maybe, we see, as they unapologetically proceed through their cases and their lives, it's because they are good at their jobs, which are not really admirable, and because they have single-mindedly pursued power and money.

I'm still thinking this through, but am interested in what others think. I'm not going to stop watching the show, but I am beginning to wonder just how good the good wife is...


Anonymous said...

I wish I could have you over for tea or coffee to discuss this, but for starters:
1) Are we talking Good as in "effective" or "virtuous"?
2) As the theme of moral ambivalence has taken more shape, I do wonder who will be left standing in the good guys' corner.
3) And yes, I publicly confess that I never miss the show.

Susan Sink said...

I mean good as in virtuous-- usually the people we LIKE and are invited to identify with are also people with the moral high ground. It's like the opposite of the first ten years of "Law and Order" where it seemed all about having the moral high ground (esp. the Michael Moriarty days). Since it's right in the title to decide what it means to be "good" as in a virtuous wife-- but in society, given her public situation, I just wonder what they're up to... Glad to have another viewer out there!

O said...

We enjoy the show too partly for its 'real' depiction of 'normal' people's mixed motives and compromises. Just recently though I have also been challenged elsewhere about how the English legal system of opposing attorneys and client privelge is itself a corrupt system that costs the whole community billions and does not achieve better outcomes than other systems. I'll be watching the series now even closer! Thanks