In surprised praise of The Good Wife

On Thursday (8th July) the Emmy nominations will be announced and it’s widely expected that The Good Wife (CBS) will receive multiple nominations, with Julianna Marguiles a lock for a best actress in a drama nod, and the favourite for the prize.  This is a noteworthy event as, in recent years this category has been dominated by cable dramas, well known as the refuge for actresses of a certain age looking for interesting lead roles. Toni Collete in United States of Tara (Showtime), Edie Falco, for many years The Sopranos (HBO) and recently Nurse Jackie (Showtime), Glenn Close in Damages (F/X), Kyra Sedgewick in The Closer (TNT) and excitingly for me, soon to be joined by Laura Linney in The C Word (Showtime). The Good Wife is that rarity, a prime time network drama with a female lead.

As Alicia Florick, wife of a jailed State Attorney following a very public sex and corruption scandal, Marguiles essays the silent, supportive wife we’ve seen so many times, stood blank-faced beside her politician husband as he confesses his misdeeds to the countries media.  Revealing the woman behind this facade, the series follows Alicia’s as she returns to the law profession she left to become a politician’s wife, in order to support her family. As a middle-aged woman (with teenage children) re-entering the workplace she is reduced to competing with a twenty-something male (well adept at the ‘boys club’ maneuvers needed to get ahead) for a Junior Associate position at the firm of an old college friend (and potential romantic interest) Will.

Combining the female lead, sharp cast and writing and the moral ambiguity of cable drama with the weekly resolutions and topical cases (Islamic cartoonists, the underhand tactics of medical insurers) of a network law drama, as Myles McNutt highlights, it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a serialised character study masquerading as a procedural, and a hit one at that, regularly drawing US audience of 12 million; at a time when viewers are scarce.  I had original dismissed it as a generic CBS procedural, but found myself drawn in by its performances, writing and interesting characterisations.  It is complex female characterisation by stealth, a study of the working mother, the complexities of marriage and a middle-aged woman’s identity reawakening.

Marguiles is adept – as are much of the excellent cast – at communicating a wealth of feelings through expressions and minimal dialogue, which is key to the series’ suprising sublety (though its legal procedural elements are rarely as subtle!) .  We do not need to hear her express her feelings over the return of her husband Peter on house arrest to her new, single-parent household she has built without him.  In a glance Alicia’s complexity of conflicting emotions – wary, happy, unforgiving, fear – play out as Peter steps over the threshold.  In one moment, Alicia sees herself move from the identity of lawyer and solo provider to that of wife.  The series plays out this continual shifting of of female identity in Alicia as she comes to grips with her new life as a lawyer and betrayed wife.  The previously silent spouse must become the confident lawyer, reliant on verbal dexterity.

Encountering a range of female identities – her strict, conservative mother-in-law; tough, savvy (and possible bisexual) company investigator Kalinda; the firm’s tough and glamorous partner Diane – an older liberal feminist whose career choices were very different to Alicia’s; Martha Plimpton’s recurring shark-like opposing council happy to exploit her pregnancy and motherhood for her cases benefit – as she attempts to find her feet in her new place in the world.  Alicia’s own identity, despite her steely strength, is constantly in flux.  A reflection, perhaps, of the modern woman.

Alongside Alicia, I’m particularly interested in Kalinda, played with an edge of steel yet intriguing mystery by the fabulous Archie Panjabi.  Kalinda is liminal – she moves between spaces – not a cop (outside of that patriarchal structure, yet adept at exploiting it), not a lawyer, never definining her sexuality, flirting with men and women to get information. She utilises her deductive intelligence, steely determination, connections and performances of femininity to get information.

As the series progressed Alicia moved further away from her earlier certainties, her moralities becoming greyer; unsure of her feelings for her cheating husband, complicated by her relationship with old-flame Will; seeking to distance herself from her reputation as betrayed wife, yet exploited for it by her firm and learning to utilise it herself for her professional success; gradually dragged into the Chicago political machine that she wanted to escape and which brought her husband down.

I would like to think that part of this complexity and depth of female characterisations is down to a rare female showrunner in Michelle King, working alognside her husband (off the top of my head I can only name Tina Fey ( 30 Rock, NBC) and Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, ABC) as network television showrunners, in comparison to a raft of male names).  The Good Wife utilises the conventions of end-of-episode certainties of the procedural’s formulas, and the slow-burning Unresolved Sexual Tension between Alicia and Will. Yet it also gets its teeth into a range of complex female representations sadly rarely seen on network television, leaving this viewer looking forward to season 2.


  1. Okay, this has persuaded me to start watching The Good Wife properly. I’ve seen an episode or two, but think I need to go back to the beginning. I am very excited to see the results of the Emmy nominations!

  2. I’ve really enjoyed watching this drama series and pleased it’s started to get some recognition over here. There aren’t many TV shows that give women the opportunity for such interesting and quite complex roles. I have the record button poised in anticipation of next season’s episodes.

  3. I made the decision to not watch this show, as part of my usual ‘how many series can I manage per week’ calculations, but Faye, reading your thoughts made me wish I’d decided differently. What you’re suggesting sounds much more complex and interesting than some of the reviews I’ve come across. Alison Graham in the Radio Times in particular has expressed some quite strong opinions against The Good Wife, arguing that it portrays the main character as basically insufferably saintly. I shall put this one towards the top of my ‘catching up’ pile. Thanks for your insightful thoughts, Faye.

  4. Thanks for the comments ladies.

    Simone, I think earlier in the series there was a touch too much ‘wins cases through her lady abilities’ and ’empathic connections’ with plaintives. There was a touch of the ‘Saint Alicia’, but I read this as Alicia looking to the law for something more black and white than the cheating and corruption her husbands dealings had confronted her with. As the series progressed she was often confronted with more shades of grey and problematic morals, with Alicia herself becoming more interesting shades of grey, no matter how uncomfortable she was about it.

    In terms of female representations, Mo Ryan at the Chicago Tribune has been doing some interesting TV criticism with an edge of gender issues for some time (i’ve liked her work on The Good Wide). She took the blogosphere’s spotlight on female TV creatives and representations given by the furore over Jezebel and The Daily Show’s ‘Women problem’ to bring up these issues last week. She has an article on the (scary) numbers of female TV creatives, one on Felicia Day and The Guild and a podcast discussion with TV writers Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain on women in TV, all worth a look/listen.

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