We crossed a line a few years ago as a culture where it became profoundly uncool, if not inviting ridicule, to suggest that a drama airing on a broadcast network belonged in the discussion of the best shows on TV. Maybe that line was crossed a couple of years ago when Emmy voters failed to nominate a single network show for Outstanding Drama Series, but whenever it was, the talking points have become set in stone: Cable dramas make fewer episodes, and can focus more on telling the best stories without having to pad things out! Network shows have to deal with censors, and with interfering executives! Cable shows don’t have to worry about spoonfeeding audiences, or giving them blandly likable characters!
I’ve made some of those arguments in the past, including against the last network show to get one of those drama series nominations: CBS’ “The Good Wife.” A couple of years ago, I even suggested that the series, excellent as it was, might be improved if creators Robert and Michelle King were allowed to just do 13 episodes a year and not have to waste time on the less interesting corners of Alicia Florrick’s world, like her kids’ latest misadventures with social media.
But there are advantages to the network model. Those extra 9 episodes a year can just be padding, or they can be an opportunity to experiment – to take detours that a tightly-plotted cable drama might not have time to bother with, but which can reveal an unexpected side to a character, or an unplanned piece of conflict that could help define that series, and turn into a brand new, even better destination.
Case in point: midway through last season, the Kings wrote an episode called “Red Team, Blue Team,” where Alicia and Cary competed in an unusually heated mock trial against mentors Will and Diane. Usually, the series generates tension by bringing in outside attorneys to cause trouble for our heroes at Lockhart Gardner – and the Kings are brilliant at coming up with great roles for their guest stars – but here it was colleague vs. colleague, co-star vs. co-star. What was designed as something to do to pass the time in between big story arcs instead revealed itself to be so powerful that it became the new story arc. The Kings recognized what they had done and spent the second half of that season on Cary making plans to start his own firm, and talking Alicia into joining him.
“The Good Wife” has always mixed legal drama with matters of both politics and the heart, but this fall, as Alicia and Cary continued to work at the old firm while quietly setting up the new one, it tacked on elements of spy thriller and has become even better for it. The start of this fifth season – including this Sunday’s marvelous episode, where Will and the other partners find out what’s going on and go to war with Alicia and Cary – has been perhaps the best concentrated stretch of the show’s entire run. Good as Julianna Margulies is, Alicia is often forced into a passive, reactive mode where she tries to keep her feelings under control while dealing with a more colorful guest star or supporting player. Not anymore. Now she’s the one instigating things, and it gives Margulies a lot more to play.
Sunday’s episode also for the most part abandons this season’s less successful subplots – Peter resisting the temptation of his beautiful new ethics advisor, Alicia’s daughter Grace being objectified by the Internet – and focuses entirely on the fallout of Will, Diane and the other partners learning about the planned mass defection of lawyers and clients. It’s just one domino falling after another, and features perhaps the best work Josh Charles has ever done on the show. As much as I enjoy the visits by Michael J. Fox, Carrie Preston and the show’s other great guests, “The Good Wife” just hits harder when it’s a civil war rather than our heroes battling eccentric outsiders. It’s an emotionally tough hour, but also a wildly entertaining one as we see Will, Diane, Alicia, Cary and everyone else plot moves and counter-moves against each other. (In particular, this scenario brings out the best/worst in Zach Grenier’s delightfully smug divorce attorney David Lee.)
Not that “Good Wife” was ever a big hit when it aired on Tuesdays, but CBS has done the show no favors by shifting it to Sundays at 9. Not only does its start time regularly get pushed by late afternoon football games (even sometimes in the weeks where it’s scheduled to start at 9:30), but it’s now airing directly opposite some of the biggest hits and/or most acclaimed shows on cable. Just in the last month, it’s competed with the “Breaking Bad” series finale and new episodes of “Boardwalk Empire,” “Homeland” and “The Walking Dead.” Later in the season, it’ll be up against “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men” (plus “Downton Abbey” on PBS).
That’s rough terrain, and particularly hard to stand out when you’re just an extremely well-executed version of a type of show TV has been making for more than 50 years. But “The Good Wife” has been outstanding so far this fall, and if the Kings can somehow keep up this level of intensity and quality through 22 episodes – even after we’ve settled into a new status quo, gone back to Cases of the Week and family subplots of questionable value – then it won’t seem absurd in the slightest if the series again gets discussed as one of the best dramas on TV. Given the format, the schedule and the different masters being served, it’s incredibly difficult to make a broadcast drama as strong as its better counterparts on cable, but it can be done. Right now, “The Good Wife” is proving that.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com