‘The Good Wife: The Second Season’ Is Torn from the Headlines

Chicago lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) waits nervously while her husband, Peter (Chris Noth), holds a press conference to announce that he will run for the state’s attorney’s office—a position he held until he was jailed for corruption. Despite Peter’s incarceration, his relationship with a prostitute that has been splashed across the media, Alicia’s resulting humiliation and her growing feelings for her colleague Will Gardner (Josh Charles), Alicia has kept her marriage and family together. Peter expects Alicia to join him at the conference and continue her dutiful-spouse role, but she is hesitant as her thoughts turn to Peter’s adultery, her newfound independence, and her longing for Will.

After some prodding from Peter’s aggressive campaign manager, Eli Gold (Alan Cumming)—who, in the interest of Peter’s career aspirations, intercepts a voicemail meant for Alicia—Alicia takes her place beside Peter. She is once again thrust into the spotlight as a “good” political wife. The image is familiar—a betrayed woman silently supporting her philandering husband as she is scrutinized by 24-hour news channels and body language analysts. According to the The Good Wife’s producers, the series was inspired by a rash of political sex scandals, most notably that of former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. They sought to explore what happened after the press conference ended and to delve into the mind of an intelligent, educated woman who sticks with a union in which trust has been shattered.

Alicia’s marriage was the core of The Good Wife’s debut season and is present in its second season, but the narrative is devoted more to her career as a junior associate at the firm of Lockhart, Gardner & Bond. Just as the idea for the series was inspired by headlines, so too are Alicia’s cases, which include a class action suit against a pharmaceutical company responsible for producing an anti-depressant that allegedly caused patients to commit suicide; the defense of a popular young singer charged with attempted murder; and a defamation claim filed against a movie studio by the wildly successful creator of an online social network.

The cases are relevant and compelling, and so are the inner workings of Lockhart, Gardner & Bond. There are bitter power struggles between the partners as well as double-crossing and backroom whispers. The firm has been affected by the dismal economy, and the importance of holding on to clients—even disreputable ones—is stressed, causing Alicia to wonder if she is “doing the right thing”. This dilemma is also faced by Peter during the race for the state’s attorney’s office, in which candidates initiate cyber smear campaigns that Eli astutely calls “a million viral paper cuts”. The candidates dig up dirt on each other’s families because, as Eli proclaims, “No one is off limits.” Eli hungers for a win and can be quite manipulative, yet he doesn’t completely lack integrity. He is sharp and savvy but not infallible, and these traits blend into an intriguing and complex personality that is portrayed with vigor by Cummings.

Eli’s major role in the narrative tends to eclipse Peter, to whom Noth brings nuance and leading-man charisma. Peter is as compelling in his moral ambiguity as he is in his efforts to atone for his sins. But he is frequently and inexplicably absent—even at his own apartment and campaign headquarters. Peter’s interactions with Alicia are limited in the second season, which has turned its attention from their marriage to Alicia’s career. Although the legal drama is interesting and well-executed, it pales in comparison to Alicia and Peter’s relationship. The focus is wisely shifted back to this dynamic in the final few episodes, but it is gone for much of the season. Also lacking is Alicia’s relationship with her two teenage children, who seem to exist merely for the purpose of soaking up her loving glances, serendipitously finding clues that help her cases, and making mistakes that threaten to sink their father’s campaign.

Alicia’s interactions with her children are not always authentic, and their conflicts are never completely examined. Why, for example, does Alicia have a negative reaction to her daughter’s fascination with Christianity? Unanswered questions such as this, combined with the focus on the courtroom instead of Alicia’s personal life, have diluted her character.

Although Margulies is a fine actress, her performance is missing the verve she brought to her role as Carol Hathaway in ER. Alicia is described as “standoffish” by her law firm peers, and Margulies portrays her with an iciness which can be blamed on a script that never deconstructs her motivations and history enough to understand her or to render her sympathetic for any reason other than Peter’s infidelity. An anemic attempt to give Alicia a back-story comes in the form of her brother, who provides negligible insight about her life and is an unnecessary addition to the cast. “My wife deserves better from her family,” Peter tells Alicia’s brother, but who exactly is Alicia’s family? Peter mentions that they abandoned her, yet reasons are never revealed and, strangely, Alicia doesn’t seem to give the issue more than a moment’s thought.

Fortunately, the last episodes provide a surprising twist that moves the focus back to Alicia’s marriage, and both she and the story regain much-needed intimacy. This sudden development relates to Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi), an investigator at Lockhart, Garder & Bond who is conveniently referred to as Alicia’s “best friend” because it benefits the plot’s new direction, yet the two women never appear to be more than office acquaintances. Panjabi does as much as she can with her role, but Kalinda’s character is so one-dimensional, so absurdly tough, shallow, and cold that she comes off as a comic strip caricature rather than as a real person. She has one brief moment of emotion that isn’t enough to redeem her, and the ease with which she solves every mystery is comical. Her past has never before come to light, and it barely does so in the second season. A rival investigator unearths some secrets that he hangs menacingly over her head, but this causes her nothing more than a fleeting facial twitch, and the full story of an old life she has discarded is abruptly dropped.

While the enigmatic Kalinda is a botched attempt at a strong female character, Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski)—a senior partner at the firm—is not. Baranski’s portrayal of a mature, successful woman who is in control of her career but not above the occasional misstep, is refreshing and appealing. Other performances are equally notable, including Josh Charles as Will Gardner, Mary Beth Peil (who is woefully underused as Peter’s doting mother), and Matt Czuchry as an ambitious young lawyer. Michael J. Fox shines in his guest role as a shady attorney who, instead of letting his disability hinder his work, shrewdly uses it to gain clients and the compassion of judges and juries. Another solid guest performance is delivered by America Ferrera as an illegal immigrant who is made a pawn in the campaign for the state’s attorney’s office and who has more than a flirtation with the much-older Eli Gold.

Her storyline merges with many others to form an intricate pattern that never feels convoluted. There is a lot going on in The Good Wife, but it all coheres. Much care has obviously been taken with the sets and even with the costumes, which are a visual representation of each character’s personality—Alicia in her conservative designer suits, Diane with her bold necklaces and rich colors. Although the writing and direction have failed a few characters and more emphasis should have been put on Alicia’s psyche and personal life, the second season of this series is clever, entertaining, and certainly worth watching.

The DVD contains 23 episodes, numerous deleted scenes, a panel discussion with the cast and producers, an in-depth interview with producers Robert and Michelle King, and brief red-carpet interviews with the actors during a party for first season’s DVD release.

RATING 8 / 10
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