Sunday, 3 March 2013

In praise of "The Good Wife"

As Chris Bryant wrote recently in one of his Independent columns: "I realised that I’m suffering from Borgen withdrawal syndrome. I’m not alone, either in my family or in Parliament, as the series has caught the imagination of not just those that love Scandinavian noir but politics addicts who have been in mourning ever since The West Wing. [...] What I don’t understand, though, is why people haven’t transferred their allegiance to the CBS show The Good Wife, which has not one but three strong female characters and brings in a gubernatorial election campaign, a weekly courtroom drama, a sharp spin doctor and one of the most compelling characters in modern TV, the private investigator Kalinda Sharma. And for those of you who love seeing Birgitte Nyborg tell men what to do in Borgen, just try Diane Lockhart (played by Christine Baranski) metaphorically bitch slap a judge."

As one who tuned in to More4's relay of "The Good Wife" from day one, I have to agree. I was attracted not only by the storyline (mother of teenage children has to resume legal career to support the family as disgraced high-flier husband is imprisoned) but also the prospect of seeing again Baranski who was the best thing about the '90s sitcom "Cybill". Her ability to deliver a tart line as if she has just thought of it is undiminished and she has established a rapport with Matt Czuchry (Will Gardner) which makes them very convincing legal partners. In addition, the writers have allowed her character, a mature woman, to have a couple of casual affairs (Bryan Brown was the latest lucky actor). This is unheard of in Hollywood, and not that common in US TV land.

What Mr Bryant is unusually delicate in not mentioning is that there was a strong Sapphic motif from early on. Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) is ready to use sexual favours to obtain information, and it was gradually revealed that this included same-sex relations. Romantic engagement with a female FBI agent looked like being serious but is now being thrown in doubt again as there are work conflicts. In the new series, a successful career-woman (Maura Tierney) has appeared first to bankroll a Democratic campaign for governor and then to run herself. \Her interest in the Good Wife, Alicia Florrick, appears to be more than professional.

As against that, there is only one regular (regular, but not frequent) out gay character, Alicia's brother, who is written as a stock "friend of Dorothy". Florrick's mother, too, is straight out of symbolic casting: churchgoing and embodying all the traits we used to attribute to the blue-rinsed ladies occupying the front rows of Conservative Party conference. Given the shading of character of the other main protagonists, one wonders whether this is wilful, rather than lazy writing, just like the pastiche of Aaron Sorkin's style of dialogue which was slipped into a recent episode.

It is perhaps not earth-shattering that the court cases have featured contentious issues such as terrorism, torture, drone strikes and, in the latest episode shown on terrestrial TV, sexual misconduct against a woman who could be expected (she was an army captain) to be immune from that sort of thing. Other US TV series, from Lou Grant on, have tackled tricky issues. What is not so common is that Lockhart Gardner loses from time to time.

As Mr Bryant writes, the plots are not totally credible when looked at closely, but one has to make allowances for a show in which a lot of loose ends have to be tied up in an hour every week. But, as he also says, the standard has been kept up well into the fourth series.

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