Critic's Notebook: 'The Good Wife' Leaves Behind an Imperfect, Admirable Legacy

Julianna Margulies' CBS drama will be remembered for its rare ability to balance network structure and Emmy prestige.
Jeff Neumann/CBS
The Good Wife was an anomaly. 
 
Premiering in 2009, it was nominated for the outstanding drama series Emmy in 2010, joining the final season of Lost in a race that went to Mad Men. The Good Wife was nominated, and beaten again by Mad Men, the following year. The main series category has thwarted The Good Wife in subsequent years, but the CBS drama is in good company. Zero network shows, in fact, have been nominated for outstanding drama series from 2012 on.
 
The perceived field of "prestige drama" has become the exclusive domain of cable and streaming services in recent years and The Good Wife ends its run on Sunday (May 8) night, having carried the network banner for as long as it could and carrying it at a high level.
 
 
How high?
 
From the firm-splintering Civil War instigated in "Hitting the Fan" to the well-kept secret shocker of "Dramatics, Your Honor," The Good Wife verged on greatness, hitting a pinnacle of what can be done blending serialized storytelling with smart, original network-style procedural structure. That was an 11-episode window of greatness that formed the spine of the show's fifth season but, as happened with some regularity on The Good Wife, the most enticing storylines were either too hastily resolved, abruptly swept under the rug or elongated beyond their peak effectiveness. 
 
Mad Men and Breaking Bad dominated the Emmys over the past decade and combined for 154 episodes, while The Good Wife will conclude with 156 episodes. Doing network TV drama for 22 or 23 episodes per year is hard work, and series creators Robert and Michelle King never let us forget it. The Good Wife was an anomaly because it was a network show playing the prestige game, but almost as often as its merits made it the exception to the rules and restrictions of the network system, it fell victim to the network churn. 
 
It's hard to imagine, but The Good Wife arrived in 2009 slightly under the radar. The Kings' credits included a bunch of so-so movies and 2006's quickly forgotten ABC series In Justice. While star Julianna Margulies still carried the aura of her Emmy-winning work on ER, her more recent series project was the quickly forgotten Fox series Canterbury's Law. Early coverage of the show was positive, but concentrated as much on which real-life political sex scandals it was echoing as its quality, and great effort had to be put into trying to convince viewers that the title was meant to be ironic — Margulies' Alicia Florrick was standing by disgraced husband Peter, but not out of any spousal beneficence. We'll never know how many viewers were turned off by the title, though apparently not enough to prevent a seven-season run.
 
 
Although CBS always gave The Good Wife solid time slots — it squandered NCIS-fueled lead-ins for a while and has been boosted and pre-empted in equal measure by football on Sundays — and promoted it heavily, the show never felt wholly at home on CBS.
 
It happens that The Good Wife did its CBS things very well. Its fans would shy from calling it a procedural, but for all of its frothiness, what the show did best was operate within a familiar network structure. I've joked about its over-reliance on narratives in which Alicia and company found themselves as confused fish-out-of-water in a legal system with unfamiliar rules, from military tribunals to private school honor boards to Catholic arbitration to bond court to the Court of Arbitration for Sports operating entirely under Swiss law. Practically every week, Alicia and Cary (Matt Czuchry) and Diane (Christine Baranski) and Will (Josh Charles) would have to learn or relearn the obscure process followed in each new setting. [I was going to make a joke about how in the eighth season, Alicia would have presented before the council of the C.H.U.D.s, but everybody knows C.H.U.D.s live in New York, and while filming in New York gave Good Wife access to its obscenely rich casting resources, the show's Chicago setting was never quite satisfactorily realized.]
 
Even in conventional trials, the show accumulated a roster of recurring judges, each with his or her own particular peccadilloes and prejudices, whether they leaned far left (Denis O'Hare's Judge Abernathy), had age-defying awareness of technology (Dominic Chianese's Judge Marx), favored the Harvard-educated (James Urbaniak's Judge Temple) or required any statement be prefaced with "in my opinion" (Ana Gasteyer's Judge Lessner). And Alicia and her team were so prolific and covered so many kinds of cases that they built up a deep reservoir of adversaries, who each proved clever and differently nefarious. The Good Wife was smart enough to have our heroes periodically get outmaneuvered so that we would respect the acumen of baby-toting Patti Nyholm (Martha Plimpton) or eccentrically scatterbrained Elsbeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston) or seemingly naive Nancy Crozier (Mamie Gummer) or viciously sympathy-mongering Louis Canning (Michael J. Fox) even if they really lost with a frequency that would normally make them unemployable. 
 
The result was a legal universe that was cumulative. Characters and viewers remembered each win and loss, came to understand which judges were good judges and bad judges for certain cases, which rivals would prove dangerous when matched with certain clients. Could you understand the cases each week if you only tuned in fitfully? Sure. This was a CBS procedural. But The Good Wife rewarded steady viewership, while also trying to lure in one-off viewers by ripping stories from the headlines with an impunity that recalled the vintage years of Law & Order. The Good Wife also reinforced its currency by focusing on and usually understanding technology in a way the few "hip" shows even attempted. The Good Wife milked laughs from Taiwanese computer-animated news reenactments, normalized NSA surveillance and, through Chumhum, the show had a platform acknowledge every Google innovation or intrusion. On a network that's home to the laughable "Sky is falling" techno-paranoia of CSI: Cyber, The Good Wife was consistently pragmatic in its approach to technology, rarely landing on "good" or "evil" when approaching the shiny and new.
 
 
The show had a similarly pragmatic approach to justice. These attorneys defended drug kingpins (Mike Colter's Lemond Bishop) and serial murderers (Dylan Baker's Colin Sweeney) at least as frequently as the wrongly accused. The Good Wife liked to tease its characters by forcing them to act against their better judgment or, in the case of Diane's strange business relationship with a conservative think tank and also her personal relationship with Gary Cole's gun-loving Kurt McVeigh, their established ideologies. And it liked to tease viewers by plunging its characters into legal quagmires in which our sympathies became complicit. How many corners could Will cut before we would stop thinking he was upstanding? How much of what Cary went to prison for was actually illegal? How much awfulness could they pile on Peter Florrick's (Chris Noth) plate and still expect us to believe that Alicia might take him back or that voters might still elect him or that he might still be plausible as a candidate for national office? And that was before we started to deal with the things Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) was willing to do to uncover sensitive and incriminating information or the amount of Chicago political mud Eli Gold (Alan Cumming) would sling to win an election. See, the show's title was ironic and being "good" meant many things.
 
Characters on The Good Wife stabbed and backstabbed, but we were also pushed to root for their myriad couplings, since The Good Wife was also very much a soap opera (with no pejorative attached). This was a show that thrived on smoldering glances and purloined kisses and as much foreplay as network television allowed, putting an erotic charge in every elevator ride or closed office door.
 
 
 
The fact that The Good Wife loved build-up and slow-burn ran afoul of the need to produce 22 episodes per season. Rather than making decisions and living with them over multiple years, the Kings resorted to whiplash as their favorite storytelling device, ramping up to big things, hitting the act itself tentatively and then retreating with frustrating regularity. Alicia and Will circled each other for years, consummated their affections, but then parted temporarily and permanently before much had been explored. Cary and Alicia split off and started their own firm and then were back in what seemed to be no time, only to be followed by Alicia's anti-climactic political run, another firm exit and another return to the firm and I think she's become a name partner now because absolutely nobody cares about logical continuity. They were tearing down office walls on last week's episode and I kept hoping to find the mummified remains of one of the dozens of characters who worked with, for or against Alicia and were phased out with minimal mention — We hardly knew you, Michael Ealy's Derrick Bond or whoever it was that Taye Diggs played —  or perhaps stumble upon Kalinda's husband's rotting corpse. 
 
And let's talk about Kalinda. Go back to the earliest episodes of The Good Wife. The Kalinda-Alicia relationship was the core of the show. Because Alicia's "wife" status was established in the title, the show found it crucial instead to define Alicia by her relationship with other women, women who were also not defined by the men around them. The mentor relationship with Diane was crucial, but Kalinda-Alicia was every bit as important. Then something happened. I'm not here to discuss whatever problems Margulies and Panjabi did or didn't have, only to note how the show suffered when the writers ceased to be able to have its two Emmy-winning stars appear in scenes together. Disgruntled actors get written off of shows all the time, but never as artlessly as the Kings handled Kalinda's descent into irrelevance. The arc with Kalinda and the aforementioned ex-husband was such an absolute nadir the Kings admitted that they cut it short, but it was only slightly worse than Kalinda's CG-enhanced send-off conversation in which Magulies and Panjabi looked through each other for an awkward minute of full creative surrender. An alleged on-set feud caused The Good Wife to become compromised drama in a way that truly great shows would never allow. Literal Kalinda replacement Robyn (Jess Weixler) was one of many characters who seemed important until they dropped off the face of the earth and spiritual Kalinda replacement Lucca Quinn never felt like anything other than transparent pandering, albeit pandering played charmingly by Cush Jumbo.
 
 
In an effort to tie the series up with symmetry, the closing run of episodes has been over-concentrated on Alicia and Peter, plus growly PI/romantic out-clause Jason (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), at the expense of everybody else. Once so central, Cary has been only slightly more visible than Kalinda and Will this season. Alicia's children, brother, mother and mother-in-law paraded through last month's hollowly farcical "Party" episode for send-off hugs and there's no reason for them to appear in the finale. Diane pops up now and again to yell "Female-partnered firm!" before vanishing into an inconsistently written void. For some reason Matthew Morrison has been on-hand as the agent of Peter's possible downfall, rather than one of the tremendous organic adversaries I mentioned earlier. I get that after standing by her husband seven years ago, Alicia is being positioned to go off and live her own life in the finale, but it has often felt like the season is an end-game response only to the "stand by your man" opening scene of the pilot and not the whole character journey. 
 
I just hope the Good Wife conclusion isn't Alicia running off with Jason. If she can't leave to hang out with Kalinda in some place with ample green screen resources, Alicia should end up confidently alone, if only for a moment. From that opening scene, Alicia has so often been inscrutable, denying viewers a clear take on her professional aspirations, her romantic ideals, her persistent reliance on wine, the cost of her wardrobe or much of anything. The excellence of Margulies' performance has rested in her refusal to make Alicia easy to understand, in keeping up a complicated wall and choosing those few moments in which to expose emotional cracks. Just as, at its best, The Good Wife was a network drama that felt almost like a cable prestige series, Margulies' performance sometimes put Alicia in that Tony Soprano/Walter White/Don Draper category of cable anti-heroes.

Maybe I never saw The Good Wife as TV's best show or, at the end of any given year, as one of TV's 10 best shows. It had too many characters who went nowhere, too many storylines that fizzled before the fireworks and that whole Alicia/Kalinda thing that will always rankle. But few recent shows could match its procedural finesse, its top-to-bottom cast, its style and Margulies' adroit centerpiece performance, all coming from a network world from which we've been trained to expect only middle-brow proficiency, if that.
 
Until the next anomaly comes along, farewell to The Good Wife.

After first standing by her man in front of the whole world seven years ago, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) will face her final curtain call on Sunday's series finale of The Good Wife. Although the critically acclaimed CBS legal drama has endured many changes over the years  the many name alterations at the firm and the departure of two of the series' biggest characters  creators Robert and Michelle King say they're ending the series largely according to plan.

It's no small feat considering that the married showrunners almost didn't get to pen the final chapter. CBS only confirmed season seven would be The Good Wife's swan song weeks after it was announced that the Kings would be stepping down as showrunners at the end of the current season to focus on their new CBS comic thriller BrainDead, which launches June 13.

Ahead of Sunday's finale, aptly titled "End," The Hollywood Reporter spoke with the Kings about their goals for the finale, servicing the fans and the one recurring character they most wish they had brought back.

What were you hoping to achieve with the finale? Which other finales did you look to for inspiration?

Robert King: Every show is different. We're great fans of TV and are great fans of serialized TV and how it ends. I think what we were looking towards are shows that seemed to be honest and had an inevitable surprise.

Michelle King: And also shows that could tell you something new about the character that you've known and loved all this time, even in the last moment.

What do you hope viewers will take away from the finale?

Michelle: My hope is satisfaction that they've been told a complete and truthful story.

Robert: We like to tell stories, so what we wanted to do was not have them be 156 independent episodes but episodes that seemed to add up to something.

Michelle: That the series felt structurally sound as a whole.

It was announced that you would step down as showrunners at the end of this season before it was confirmed this would be the final season. How different would that last episode have been if there was going to be a season eight?

Robert: It wasn’t going to be any different at all. We had planned this out for a while. We weren’t trying to, in fact, endanger CBS' franchise if they wanted to continue with the franchise, so one could pick up where we left off.

Once you realized The Good Wife would go beyond that initial 13-episode order, when did you truly start discussing and thinking about how you each wanted the show to end and what you envisioned that ending to be?

Michelle: We had an image that we knew we wanted to get to. You never know exactly how you're going to get there in series television because there are a lot of things that step in the way: You lose actors, you gain actors, you get infatuated with a particular storyline, so there's this meandering path but we had an ending image that we wanted to get and we did.

Did you agree on that last image from the get-go? Or did you have different ideas?

Robert: We did not have different ideas. At that point, we were very much living day-to-day so I think we wanted to be able to write toward the future even if we didn’t know if the future was going to exist. We told ourselves the story that we were writing and that is kind of what we're aiming for, but look, there was a chance that CBS would say, "We don't love your ratings. We're going to cancel you after year two or year three." And then we just wanted to tell ourselves that story, we don't want to have it be known that we weren't on long enough to deliver the story.

You had two main characters leave over the course of the series, Will and Kalinda, so how much did that change the finale you had envisioned?

Michelle: That didn't change the finale, really. It certainly changed the course of the series because it's always been about the education of Alicia Florrick, and so those two people in her life played on her and we were able to play with those emotions, but in terms of what the show ending was, that didn't impact it.

What was the most challenging part of crafting the finale?

Robert: Well, we were working on BrainDead so it was probably the difficulty of balancing back and forth between two stories. I would say the second part was there was a lot of emotion in writing it. The only thing equal would be the emotion of writing the episode where Will dies and the aftermath. It really felt like, unfortunately, you were putting these characters away for good. They call it a bittersweet feeling; I actually think it's just bitter.

Michelle:  I would say that we felt a great deal of obligation towards the characters, towards the actors, towards the fans  you want to do right by them. That’s a lot of pressure.

The fans have certain recurring characters they love or certain storylines. How do you balance paying service to the fans but also being true to the story and where you want it to go?

Robert: I don't know where that meeting point is because especially if you want to do something different, you're hopefully giving, sometimes, the fans something they don't know they want, and I'm not sure what the point is. I do know that we tried to have the last four to five episodes be a goodbye to characters who wouldn't all fit into the finale. So Stockard Channing playing Veronica, Dallas Roberts playing her brother; we just wanted all these characters to come back. It's not just the finale, it's kind of the last four episodes where you're saying goodbye to these people.

Is there one recurring character or fan favorite that you really tried to get back for the final episodes but it didn't work out?

Robert: Robyn, Jess Weixler, when we were plotting out episodes, it was kind of our investigators competing against each other but the scheduling didn't work out. We love Jess so maybe on the next series.

Cary has also played a smaller role in these final episodes because he left the firm. What was the reasoning behind that decision and saying goodbye to that character a little earlier?

Robert: One of those things we thought with Cary is he's turned into a very ethical persona and at a certain point, we needed to change it up from the usual firm fights over the direction of the law firm because that can grow a little old so what we wanted to do was make it seem like we're heading towards one of those climaxes again and then  which again, goes to character and not to structural conceit  to say, "No, I'm through with this. If you guys want to fight over it, go for it, but I'm out." And it felt very true to who Cary became over those seven seasons. He was someone who was sick of all the things that were not about practicing the law.  It kind of felt like it was a way to pay attention to who the character was and then throw a monkey wrench into the plot.

In these final episodes, we've seen Alicia standing by Peter once again. What you hoping to portray and achieve with this storyline?

Robert: I think one of the things we wanted was a return, your ending is in your beginning and your beginning is in your ending. As we see with the characters and the politics, they have scandal after scandal. It's not an oddity, especially in Chicago politics. So if it's about the reality of it, that's just true to life. And it seems like when someone's been weakened by a run for presidency or a run for any office, and they lose, they're more vulnerable.

But as for Alicia, I do think one of the reasons to return to her original situation is to see how much she's grown or not grown, to see change. One of the reasons we probably do think this is a seven-year show is there are probably only a certain number of ways that we want to challenge Alicia and we wanted to challenge her one last time with this.

These last episodes saw the return of Kurt McVeigh (Gary Cole) and also showed just how different Diane's marriage to Kurt is compared to Alicia and Peter's marriage. What were you trying to convey with this juxtaposition?

Robert: There was one episode called "Party," which was all about marriage, like marriage seen from 10 or 12 different positions; not only with Zach getting married to his girlfriend and going off to Paris, but there was Jackie and Howard, and I thought the key was that Alicia was looking at Diane and McVeigh's marriage as something very desirable. I think there was even a bit of jealousy. Like, why am I not happy like that? Why can't my commitment be like that? Why is everything in my life more troubled?

Michelle: What's interesting to me about the Kurt-Diane marriage is that it's a love that transcends their differences. That they acknowledge that they have very different opinions on certain issues, they embrace their differences and they can still love each other and commit to each other fully.

You're already writing a new show, BrainDead, but what is the biggest thing that you miss about writing for The Good Wife specifically?

Michelle: I know I'm going to miss all these characters terribly. When you're so used to wondering what Alicia would think or reading a newspaper and seeing something that's going on in the world and feeling like, 'Oh, that's the genesis of a case.' I'm sure I'm going to miss that.

Robert: For me, I think it's the humor. What I liked writing with these characters is I thought they were smart and clever and funny, and I think it was funny part that was most attractive about writing for them.

Look back at the moments that changed The Good Wife forever:

The Good Wife series finale airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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