TV Review: CBS’ ‘The Good Wife’

09.22.09 8 years ago

Eike Schroter/CBS

It should be said up-front that as Julianna Margulies legal dramas go, CBS’ “The Good Wife” marks a much more appealing comeback vehicle that FOX’s short-lived, gloomy “Canterbury’s Law.”

There are three or four different shows bubbling beneath the surface of “The Good Wife.” Curiously, the show’s creators — Robert and Michelle King — seem to be interested in the versions of the series that interest me least. That leaves me acknowledging the potential of “The Good Wife,” but not likely to commit to a long prolonged viewership myself.

Given that CBS has scheduled “The Good Wife” following two sure-to-be-popular hours of “NCIS” and given the chance that other viewers may like the direction the writers are taking more than I do, Margulies’ new series has a fair chance of success.

[My review of Tuesday (Sept. 22) night’s premiere of “The Good Wife” after the break…]

The pilot for “The Good Wife” begins with a scene we’ve seen many times in recent years. A disgraced politician — Chris Noth’s Peter Florrick, a state’s attorney — stands in front of a ravenous media horde apologizing for “a failure of judgment.” To his side is his wife — Margulies’ Alicia Florrick — stoic and unreadable, supporting her flawed man. 

Directed by Charles McDougall, “The Good Wife” shifts quickly to the wife’s perspective as she fixates on every small detail of the press conference, his fingers on the podium, a loose thread on his soot. Many folks have watched the Bill Clintons, the Eliot Spitzers, the John Edwards and wondered what the wives were thinking. “The Good Wife” sets itself up as being the answer to that question.

But then…

Six months later. 

Peter’s in jail for corruption charges that seem to involve trading lighter sentences for sexual favors as well as a variety of other indiscretions with young women. 

And Alicia is keeping the family together by going back into the workforce and joining a generic legal procedural. She hasn’t used her law degree in 13 years, but she’s starting at a big firm where she’ll have to go head to head with a spoiled brat of a young associate (Matt Czuchry’s Cary) to keep her job. She got her job through old law school buddy Will (long-absent Josh Charles) and she gets a stern and disapproving mentor in Christine Baranski’s Diane. 

On her first case, paired with private investigator Kalinda (Archie Panjabi), we learn how rusty Alicia’s legal skills are, but how she may have just enough female intuition to compensate.

As generic as the courtroom stuff is, it’s the aspect of the show that I like the most. The stuff in the pilot may not be good, but there’s tremendous potential to the dynamic between Alicia, Kalinda and Diane, three hard-nosed women attempting to fill traditional male power roles however they can. Margulies, Baranski and Panjabi are strong enough actresses to pull off that sort of non-David E. Kelley-ified female-centric series that might actually look at how the legal world treats women, without being jokey or cutesy or condescending. That’s a show I’d watch, but it isn’t the show the Kings are interested in. Czuchry and Charles are good actors, but their parts are bland and detract from the women.

The only guy I’d keep around from that side of the story is David Paymer, as a skeptical judge. Best case scenario, Paymer becomes the sort of recurring judge featured on Kelley’s shows, but his scenes reminded me of what a very capable character actor he is. It’s not that I begrudge Paymer’s career as a TV director-for-hire, but he’s an Oscar nominated actor and somebody should be giving him something substantive to do.

The second side of the show is the story of how a woman rebuilds rebuilds her family life after becoming a public laughingstock. Alicia has the requisite awkward kids who are now dealing with an indignity even worse than learning that your dad has been banging twentysomething hookers — Public school. Don’t expect CBS to have much patience for the domestic melodrama aspect of the story, because CBS knows it can’t market that kind of series. 

Alicia’s home life may get more complicated if her husband’s trial is reopened. It seems like there may be some sort of conspiracy involving his imprisonment, but we can guess that we’ll see that side of things only as much as Chris Noth’s availability will allow. That worries me, because I don’t need Noth to ever return, except possibly for a sweeps visit or two. 

“The Good Wife” shouldn’t be Noth’s story and he shouldn’t even be encroaching. It’s Margulies’ show and CBS should have enough faith to let her carry it. Even if she’s never actually carried a showA possible romantic relationship with Charles’ character is way to pre-determined, but if “The Good Wife” is supposed to be a show about a woman moving on, then darnit let her move on. Let viewers just appreciate how great Margulies is at playing both the soft and tough sides of her character. And, for heaven’s sake, find a way to let her smile. That’s where Panjabi’s character probably comes in, pushing Alicia to have a little fun, but part of the reason “Canterbury’s Law” failed so completely was that it was unrelentingly dour. I don’t remember Margulies being funny on “E.R.” but I’d watch her try. 

What I can’t watch, and what CBS viewers may have trouble watching after the stand-alone “NCIS” and its spawn, is a show that can’t commit to the story it wants to tell. While it’s very easy to find good things about “The Good Wife,” it’s starting off trying to be too many things and that may prevent it from being a good show.

“The Good Wife” premieres on Tuesday, Sept. 22 on CBS at 10 p.m. 

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