Quick, tick off the best dramas of the past 10 or so years. Start post-Sopranos. You’ve got Breaking Bad, for sure, and Mad Men, definitely. Game of Thrones and Justified, probably, depending on your feelings about dragons and epic multi-family power struggles and handsome men in cowboy hats shooting at loquacious former neo-Nazi bank robbers. Then you’ve got your Homelands and your Downton Abbeys and your The Americanses and such. It’s probably too early to include shows like Fargo and Better Call Saul. You’ve got others, I’m sure. We can fight about it all some other time.
But here’s a question: When you got to the end of that list and gave it a once-over… did it have The Good Wife on it? Because it probably should have.
It’s easy to overlook The Good Wife — which ends its seven-season run this May — in a conversation about the best recent prestige dramas. It has a lot going against it, on paper. It’s on a network at a time when the phrase “network drama” is practically a cuss word. The network it’s on, CBS, is best known for wildly successful cookie-cutter procedurals about attractive loose cannon sciencecops solving murders all over America. The only time anyone in television media discussed it in the last three or four years is when rumors spread that two of its stars hated each other so much that the show had to use editing magic for an important scene because they couldn’t be in the same room together anymore. The show had an uphill climb to respectability, is my point.
A quick Good Wife primer: The Good Wife comes from husband-wife creative team Robert and Michelle King, and stars Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick. It began as a kind of fictionalized Eliot Spitzer situation, with a touch of Bill and Hillary Clinton thrown in. Alicia’s husband, Peter (Chris Noth), a Chicago politician, got outed for seeing prostitutes and being involved in a political corruption scandal, which resulted in her re-starting the legal career she had left behind over a decade earlier. The series then followed Alicia as she rebuilt her life and her career, all while dealing with the ramifications of being a national famous humiliated spouse. Those are the bullet points.
One of the qualities that made the show so interesting: its female lead. Look back at our list of dramas in the first paragraph. A few ensembles aside, it’s basically one long run of conflicted dudes tearing their families apart. With all that history, it’s almost a miracle this didn’t end up as a premium cable drama titled Windy City that focused on Peter and his whole political deal, with Alicia relegated to Skylar White/Betty Draper status. All the typical prestige drama boxes would have been checked: powerful man, self-destructive tendencies, strong-willed wife, etc. Instead, the show has been more interested in what happens when you make that difficult man a character on the periphery. The Good Wife basically took the premise of every great #PeakTV era drama and flipped it on its head. We should give it more credit for that.
(The funny thing here is that comedy is way out in front of drama in high-quality, female-led shows. Three of the best comedies of the last five to 10 years have starred women: 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and Veep. And that’s before we get to newer shows like Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer and Jane the Virgin, among others.)
None of this is to say The Good Wife has been without flaws. It’s been smart, and intense, and surprising, and even the case-of-the-week procedural aspects the show used to help push the plot from point to point usually offered a compelling take on a current event. (It’s done a lot of internet cases about personal privacy, with fake Reddits and Googles standing in for their real-world counterparts.) But… the show has had its flaws, most notably with pacing. Sometimes The Good Wife would burn through two or three fun plots in a month only to let one that was dragging the show down linger on forever. (Remember Kalinda and her criminal ex? Probably best if you don’t!) And for all its great guest stars — shouts go out here to Michael J. Fox as a morally bankrupt rival attorney and Carrie Preston as Elsbeth Tascioni, one of the more fun characters on television right now — it had this habit of discarding interesting characters almost on a whim. I miss Robyn. That’s the gist of this paragraph, basically.
But even those flaws deserve a caveat. This is a network drama. It needs to crank out 20+ episodes in a season, every season. That’s a lot of time to fill, especially if you’re trying to serialize the whole thing out instead of just letting Lieutenant Brock Shootfirst and his trusty associate Dr. Liz Hotchemist put away a different psychopath every week. Pacing out arcs of different lengths over that much time is impossible to do without a few notable misses. Even the best network dramas had this problem at some point. Friday Night Lights turned into a teen murder drama for a year. Lost got mystery-crazed. The West Wing blew poor Donna half-up for… reasons. At some point in any run like that, you’ve almost got to just fling something at the wall and hope it sticks. Sometimes it doesn’t. Nature of the beast.
A little math illustrates this point better. Mad Men ran for seven seasons and 92 episodes over eight years. Breaking Bad checked in at five seasons and 62 episodes over about five and a half years. Game of Thrones is currently at an OCD-friendly five seasons and 50 episodes in five years. The Good Wife, by the time it ends its run later this year, will have aired for seven seasons and 156 episodes in just under seven years. That’s a lot of episodes. It almost seems unfair to judge what it’s doing against what shows on cable are doing. Those other series get to carefully craft each episode, pack them with references and callbacks, and structure each season’s arcs to fit nicely into a 10 to 13 episode run. It’s like the difference between an artisanal bakery where a master baker crafts each order of a dozen donuts by hand and a nationwide chain pumping 50 donuts through the glazer at a time. We laud the artisanal place for being great, but shouldn’t we also be lauding the other place if they end up turning out a good product, too, especially given the circumstances?
It brings up an interesting little thought experiment: What if The Good Wife had been a cable show? Or even a premium cable show? It’s fun sometimes to picture an FX or HBO version of it, free of FCC guidelines (not that the show hasn’t pushed it a little here and there), with its episode order cut in half and the detritus all burned off. Just a streamlined, cuss-filled 70ish episodes, and out. But then there’s the other side: One of the things that made the show special and impressive was that it already was competing with the big boys with one hand tied behind its back. Wanna know the full list of network dramas nominated for the Outstanding Drama Emmy since 2010? Here you go: Lost in 2010, for its final season; Friday Night Lights in 2011, also for its final season; and The Good Wife in 2010 and 2011.
That’s not to say that it getting the only non-swan song Emmy drama nominations for network television in the last six years is an impeachable indicator of quality, but it — plus everything else we hit on here — is probably a sign that The Good Wife at least deserves to be in that discussion we started 1200 words earlier. And that’s the point.