What The Good Wife Does Right

No, no, I’m not offering you marriage advice. I’m talking about the CBS legal drama starring Julianna Margulies.

Does it strike you as odd that I, the fantasy lover and writer, find this show better than Game of Thrones (based on a series of books I adore) and Castle (about a mystery writer and starring Nathan Fillion, for crying out loud)? I find it a little strange, too.

But the day-to-day writing in this show is phenomenal, and the actors take that magic and turn it into reality. The Good Wife is, in my humble opinion, the best show on TV right now. So what is this show doing right?

***HERE BE SPOILERS***

image via TVOvermind

1. It has a realistic but well-positioned character main character. When we first meet Alicia, the only things we know about her are that her husband is a cheating scumbag, she’s not divorcing him, and she’s going to support their family by working as a lawyer while he’s in jail. Beyond that, Julianna Margulies’s performance is so controlled, so restrained, that she’s almost a blank template in the pattern of Bella Swann. She is the good wife, the stereotypical wronged politician’s wife, which is interesting, but it doesn’t tell us too much yet.

Lucky us, though, the writers are smart enough to give her a character arc that suits her position. Part of the show’s plot is her growth as an individual: she wins the competition for a permanent position at her law firm, she starts a relationship with an old flame, she makes new friends, and she builds a new life. She has flaws, too: she overreacts to her control-freak mother-in-law’s scheming, she has an extramarital affair with her boss, she has trouble controlling her teenage children. She’s human, in other words.

image via Buddy TV: He is a pretty charming boss.
2. No character is purely good or purely evil. (With the possible exception of dirtbag Chris Noth, who isn’t exactly evil; he’s just a politician.) Alicia, our heroine, has an extramarital affair with her boss—not exactly a smart move, even if your husband slept with prostitutes and got thrown in jail for corruption as state’s attorney.
 
The boss Alicia sleeps with may or may not bribe judges: he also may or may not hire investigators as henchmen. The mercenary political consultant Eli Gold (played by the truly delightful Alan Cumming) has a heart beneath his well-dressed, uncaring facade, and even develops a crush on the ingenue illegal immigrant he first ruins and then sets out to help. Every character has a hard side and a soft one, and seeing a different facet in every episode makes for a great viewing experience.
 
3. The dialogue sparkles. Remember in the “oughties,” when everyone talked about The West Wing and how it had the best dialogue ever? Well, The Good Wife‘s is just as good. Check out this exchange between Alicia and her brother, Owen:
 
Owen: Afraid of the Alicia stare.
Alicia: The what?
Owen: You know. (makes a glacial glare)
Alicia: When have I ever done that?
Owen: When someone doesn’t live up to your standards.
Alicia: You make me sound like such a bitch!
Owen: Noooo. Proper.
Alicia: Ow!
Owen: Are you going to leave him?
Alicia: Owen, please don’t.
Owen: He’s two-faced.
Alicia: Everyone’s two-faced.
Owen: You’re not.
Alicia: Yes, I am.
Owen: Then you’ve changed.
Alicia: No. Issues got more complex. And I grew up.
 
Does that not sound exactly like an exchange between a brother and a sister? You can feel the history and, even out of context, pick up something about each character’s personality.
 
image via FanPop: This guy said "fellating Santa."
The show is full of one-liners, too, especially from Eli Gold. For example: “[It looks like] you fellating Santa. I have to be blunt, sir, because that’s how TMZ is gonna report it, Fox is gonna repeat it, and Jon Stewart is gonna finish it. ‘Here. Comes. Santa.'”
 
You get the idea. 
 
So, bottom line? Interesting, well-positioned main character (also known as great concept); well-rounded characters; great dialogue. Books aren’t TV episodes, but there’s definitely something to take away.

What do you think, readers? Do you watch The Good Wife, or do I need to harass you into watching the way I did my mother? (She loves it now, btw.) What other TV shows can teach us about writing?

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10 thoughts on “What The Good Wife Does Right

  1. I have not watched the show yet, but after reading this and hearing from countless others about how good it is, I think it will be the next one I get caught up on through netflix. Great post!

    1. Thanks! You should definitely give it a try — it’s worth getting the discs, even, if it’s not available streaming.

    1. Ha! Yes. My fiance and I frequently discuss shows during the show, but not with this one. Complete attention during.

  2. At the end of the first season, I was so tired of the dutiful and boring Alicia–but then the writers gave her a spine, made hr interesting, and made the cases more importnat. Still family, still the firm, but also interesting cases. IMHO, the writers were smart enough to make Alicia’s character arc broader and bolder.

    1. She was pretty ho-hum, bland-as-porridge in the beginning. I’m glad she (and the writers) threw caution to the wind and she branched out in her personal life as well as the cases.

  3. The acting in this show, IMHO, is brilliant. I also love Eli. What is it about him that is so appealing. It isn’t like I would trust him in real life. But I also love Calinda. She’s the type of person I wish I were sometimes – no fear, tough as nails – but could never be (fearful, not so tough). Fun to see your perspective on this show that I tend to watch thoughtlessly.

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