'The Good Wife' and the problem of too much good TV

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Image Credit: Myles Aronowitz/CBS

The moment I finally became a fan of The Good Wife occurred just about three weeks ago. It came in the current season’s widely praised fifth episode, “Hitting The Fan.” This was the one where Will (Josh Charles) and Diane (Christine Baranski) fired Alicia (Julianna Margulies) and Cary (Matt Czuchry) for plotting to start their own firm. As Will progressed from betrayal (his reaction, a symphonically-performed shock-face culminating in a downbeat “what?!”, was priceless) to “commando mode” (rallying emergency quorums; hustling clients to keep them from bolting), and as Alicia progressed from resolute yet regretful to full-on “Oh, it’s so on!” (countering Will’s counter-attacks; wooing Chum Hum; an adrenaline rush quickie with Governor Hubby), it was thrilling to watch them find new energy and purpose in their lives amid the crisis, if slightly heartbreaking to watch the former lovers, now former colleagues, become enemies. It was impossible to take a side; I wanted both to win. In a story full of such grand drama and significant developments, it was a smaller, funnier exchange between Alicia and Will that grabbed me. As a contentious phone conversation came to a close (“Go to hell!” “No, you go to hell!”), Will remembered something very important. “Oh, your daughter called,” he said, suddenly civil. “She needs you to call her school to let her go on a field trip.” “Oh. When was this?” Alicia asked, equally pleasant. “About 40 minutes ago.”  “Thank you.” “You’re welcome.” Click. And then war resumed.

Not a terribly ingenious scene, I grant you. It hewed to a familiar screwball comedic structure. The whiplash tonal shift; two rivals abruptly making nice or banal in a way that almost feels out of character. Except here, the moment felt true to the characters, at least as I understand them so far. It was an effective way to dramatize that their relationship was more complex than their current conflict, to show that neither of them should be defined by the crisis/concerns consuming them at present; and it was a moment that was representative of all of everything else in the show that was converting me to rabid Good Wife fandom.

If you’re a longtime viewer, maybe you read the preceding 300+ words distracted by this thought: You’re only NOW becoming a fan?! But it’s been on for over four seasons, and it’s been sensational for at least three of those!* Where the hell have you been? (*Or so I’m told.) Yep, it’s true: I have faithfully ignored The Good Wife for years. And like the idiot male I often am in so many other areas of my life, I am now scrambling to make up for all my neglect. I actually enjoy the activity – the thrill of discovery, the healthy humbling of realizing you have been missing out on something, the catch-up binging. My training and expertise in comic book reading prepares me well for this: Before the days of collected edition trade paperbacks and graphic novels, becoming a comic book fan usually didn’t begin with buying the first issue of a series, but stumbling into a story already in progress, sensing something special or at least experiencing something that captures the imagination, and wanting more.

In the new issue of EW, I explain why I never gave The Good Wife a chance when it debuted in the year 2009 B.C. (Before I became a Critic), and why I decided to give it a chance now. As for why I am only now getting around to watching the series, I have several reasons, including some inconvenient time slots and my refusal to admit that I am not forever 29 and that I am actually old enough now to fall within the CBS target demo, or at least who I perceive the CBS target demo to be. Perhaps you can relate to some of my other, more reasonable excuses for not watching Good TV, like…

There’s too much other good stuff to watch. Until I became a critic, I had no professional obligation to be intimately familiar with every single series on television. (And if I did have that obligation … oops.) There has never been a time with so much TV worth watching, and there is simply not enough time in the week for a recreational TV watcher to watch it all. And when some of those shows require tracking sprawling serials with massive, messy mythologies – Lost, Fringe, Mad Men and Breaking Bad – the mere prospect of taking on another potentially demanding drama is daunting. As The Good Wife gained a Quality Show rep via critical praise, Emmy noms and social media buzz, I added the show to my list of Shows To Watch On DVD When I Get A Chance – a list that is now is so intimidatingly, untenably long. Where do I start? Fortunately, my job change gives me more time – and motivates me – to want to watch more. (For deeper insights into the “too much good stuff” problem with TV, check out this essay by Alan Sepinwall at Hitfix and this essay by Time’s James Poniewozik.)

I am beholden to old favorites. It’s hard to add new shows into my weekly viewing menu – even shows as seemingly essential to a healthy pop culture diet as The Good Wife – because I am too attached to existing series I love. Or loved. I tend to stick with shows longer than I should, even when they start to spoil. An example for me would be The Mentalist. I got hooked on the show – late, as usual; the second season, I believe – because of the way Simon Baker turned detective work into a sleight-of-hand magic trick and for the involving, ongoing Red John mystery. It started going stale for me in season four; and the Red John mystery began steadily losing steam ever since the memorable episode at the end of season three when Patrick Jane thought he shot his nemesis in cold blood over tea in a food court. But I continued watching – and still watch – out of a sense of investment. I also am an optimist who believes things can get better. And I hate to be the guy who quits on things when things get hairy. I am probably silly to let any one of those factors affect my TV viewing; a TV show doesn’t deserve the kind of grace and patience you’d give to, say, a girlfriend or a president. But there you go. I am a silly man.

I have been a cable drama snoot. The Sopranos. Deadwood. Six Feet Under. Mad Men. Breaking Bad. A decade of cable drama greatness has raised my standards. And my taste. Never mind the “creative freedoms” of cable (the serialization; the moral ambiguity; the swearing and sex). Thanks to HBO, Showtime, and now Netflix, I prefer commercial-free TV, which allows for inventive episode structures, longer scenes, varied pacing, an artfully constructed whole that can be better seen and appreciated by the viewer. Death to the four-to-six act structure of commercial TV drama, comprised of mini-arcs of rising action that build to forced, often bogus pitched beat! (Reality TV is the worst. See: The Amazing Race, which loves kicking to a commercial with a cliffhanger crisis that is instantly resolved the second you get back.) The Good Wife can’t completely transcend the limitations of the broadcast TV form, but the episodes I’ve seen sure so far sure tried hard and often successfully at doing so.

Genre fatigue. You know how some critics are so sick of superheroes and sci-fi and fantasy? That’s how I feel about legal drama and crime-time procedurals. I was raised on L.A. Law and spent a great deal of my twenties and early thirties in prime time courtrooms, most of them presided over by the honorably provocative if often indulgently quirky David E. Kelley or the grim and gritty Dick Wolf. That I had become burned out on the genre, or convinced myself that the genre had nothing more to offer, influenced my want to stay away from The Good Wife’s chambers. Yet watching the show this season has reminded me how much I actually enjoy the storytelling dynamics of courtroom drama and how the genre can be used to actually discuss morally murky issues instead of just wallowing in it – one of the few significant weaknesses to the anti-hero era of cable drama.

So those are some of my lame excuses reasons for coming late to The Good Wife party. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to binging on the four seasons I’ve missed. I’m particularly intrigued to learn more about Kalinda (Archie Panjabi); my Good Wife friends tell me she’s full of surprises. Do you struggle with the Too Much Good Stuff problem? What good shows have you been denying yourself or putting off? I’m curious to read your responses in the message board below.

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