[22 September 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Why don’t you let me know when I do something right?
—Alicia (Julianna Margulies)
“Men can be lazy. Women can’t,” asserts Diane (Christine Baranski). She peers over her desk at her law firm’s latest hire, Alicia (Julianna Margulies).“That goes double for you. Not only are you coming back to the workplace fairly late, but you have very prominent baggage.” Alicia nods, all too aware of that baggage. Her husband, erstwhile Illinois State’s Attorney Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), is in prison at the moment, convicted of using his office’s money to pay for his pricey call girls. Alicia is now back at work, determined to make good on the promise she showed 15 years ago, when she graduated at the top of her class at Georgetown.
Diane, for her part, remains skeptical, less inclined to mentor than to test and tease, despite her announcement that “The closest thing we have to an old boys’ club in this town [is] women helping women.” As Alicia soon sees in The Good Wife, premiering 22 September on CBS, such allusions “in this town,” tend to be bogus or self-serving or both. When Diane glances at a framed photo of herself with Hillary Clinton and sniffs, “If she can do it, so can you,” she seems unconvinced of what she’s saying, but happy enough to show off her own celebrity associations.
Alicia’s brush with fame is considerably less pleasant. The series opens as she walks with Peter to a podium, where he makes a brief statement to a voracious press pack, flashbulbs harrowing and voices cacophonous. As Alicia watches her husband speak, the camera stays close and jittery, her taut face and poised hands recalling those glimpsed in similar real-life scenes, from Dina McGreevey to Silda Spitzer and Jenny Sanford. The show suggests that Alicia’s response—her return to work, struggle with rumors, and sustained anger at Peter—offers answers to the usual question in such situations (that is, “What was she thinking?”). The show grants frustrated viewers a measure of satisfaction when, backstage after the press announcement, she slaps her husband’s face—hard.
As Alicia describes her history to this point, she left the law to tend to “the kids” (13-year-old Grace [Makenzie Vega] and 14-year-old Zach [Graham Phillips)] and “Peter’s career.” Hired by former classmate Will (Josh Charles), she accepts the help of her mother-in-law Jackie (Mary Beth Peil) at home and silently absorbs comparisons to her young colleagues’ mothers. The Good Wife also gives Alicia a new best friend, the firm’s “in-house,” Kalinda (Archie Panjabi). Sharp and independent, she provides Alicia with the sort of detailed case investigation that reveals her male counterparts’ routine carelessness.
Such instructional plotting means the premiere episode quickly turns from cultural analysis to standard procedural, regarding the high profile retrial of Jennifer (Katie Walder), accused of killing her ex-husband and cause of a hung jury for Diane. While Kalinda assumes that a crucial videotape indicts the woman, Alicia’s focus and advice are premised less on apparent facts than on her own experience. “You’re gonna take it one day at a time,” she says, “You won’t feel like it, but put on nice clothes and make up… It’s the superficial things that matter most right now.” Though Kalinda (who was, in her favor, once fired by Peter) warns her not to “identify with” her clients, it appears that Alicia’s defining character trait will her special insight into aggrieved wives (this opposed to seeing ghosts or deciphering skeletons). “Does it ever get easier?” whimpers Jennifer. “No,” asserts Alicia, “But you get better at it.”
On the job, Alicia’s rust and timidity soon give way to visible confidence, helped along by a change in attitude from the judge (David Paymer). Initially sustaining the cocky prosecutor’s (Chris Butler) unspecified objections and identifying Alicia as the wife of the State’s Attorney he “didn’t like,” the judge is soon giving her all kinds of leeway to question witnesses en route to a very regular courtroom climax. Neither does it help that Alicia immediately irks the new State’s Attorney, who warns her not to become “collateral damage.” Yes, she’ll be up against that same “old boys’ club” Diane has dismissed. And yes, she’ll be incessantly sympathetic in this familiar context.
And yet, even as this plot pattern bodes ill, Margulies and Panjabi make a formidable team. Their performances—crisp and nuanced—go a long way toward smoothing over the rough edges of their characters’ obvious “types.” It is, after all, “the superficial things that matter most.”