Mediacheck

Ever Uncompromising, 'The Good Wife' Comes to an End

From ageism to ableism, few stereotypes left unbroken in this legal drama.

By Shannon Rupp 29 Apr 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

When The Good Wife wraps up a brilliant seven-season series May 8, TV audiences will have lost the only show that questions the garden variety, everyday corruption that is part of most people's working lives.

The show began as a pleasant enough legal drama starring Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick, the good wife in question, who faces that old Hillary Clinton dilemma when her politician husband's infidelity goes public. Early viewers watched for the stellar cast -- Christine Baranski, Josh Charles, and Chris Noth (who is perfect as the husband Peter Florrick, a thug in a $5,000 suit).

But writers Michelle and Robert King soon made it into something more: astute social commentary about how creeping technology and the growing loss of privacy has turned us all into liars and frauds as we are dragged, unwillingly, onto the public stage.

Alicia's husband's political strategist Eli Gold -- played with a ruthless charm by Alan Cumming -- nags her relentlessly about how to construct a public persona voters will like. As a smart, sarcastic atheist, Alicia resents being told to keep her real self under wraps. But as any employee who has been fired for his social media performance can tell you: Eli offers good advice for anyone who chooses to enter the arena, which includes Twitter.

The Kings are admired for turning out a cable-quality show despite the network's punishing 22-episode schedule and praised for their briskly paced scripts and nuanced characters. But I appreciate their educational, tech-savvy scripts that made a lot of the digital mumbo-jumbo accessible to an audience that had never heard of bitcoin. Seven years ago, most people were unaware of how easy it was to hack a smartphone or access someone's computer webcam until The Good Wife wove it into their complex plots.

Today, social media factor regularly in lawsuits. (An Abbotsford teacher recently won a libel suit against his neighbour who lied that he was a pedophile on her Facebook page after he complained about her noisy water fountain.) But seasons ago, when Alicia managed to get a mistrial after she caught a judge friending a juror on social media, it was a novel idea that digital relationships were real.

"But I'm running for re-election," the judge pleaded, arguing there was no impropriety because digital fraternizing wasn't real life fraternizing.

Inclusivity done right

Much is made of the Kings' clever scripts, but few critics comment on the genuine inclusivity of the show. Beyond having a cast that reflects the racial demographics of Chicago, the show includes a wide range of views. While the producers are undoubtedly liberal, they allow for a world in which the Republicans aren't always wrong, the Christians aren't always crazy, and the liberals have turned the word "progressive" into "hypocrite" with amusing regularity.

Nobody is safe from the Kings' satirical barbs. A few episodes ago, Canadians came in for a drubbing for our smug, naïve nationalism. During an extradition hearing, officials in Toronto were so busy bragging about not being American that they didn't know an unnamed Canadian version of a domestic spying agency was tracking the phones of Alicia and Co. right along with the U.S. security crew.

It's impossible not to love versatile actress Christine Baranski as the firm's elegant and loudly liberal name partner, Diane Lockhart. But I wonder if her character sheet reads: fabulous necklaces, paranoid, hypocritical. She abandons her liberal principles and her much-publicized personal ethics at the first sign of a rich client or an attractive Republican man.

The Good Wife is one of the few shows to include disabled characters regularly and mostly without comment. Except in the case of wily lawyer Louis Canning, who uses his handicap to gain the sympathy of judge and jury. In a meta twist, he's played with good-natured cynicism by Michael J. Fox, who employs his own Parkinson's disease to give the character trembling limbs and an unsteady gait.

Canning is a formidable opponent, and by the time he's finished with Alicia and her firm the only thing they notice about his disability is what a useful weapon he has.

It's a recurring theme in the show, where people are rarely what they appear to be, and many turn personal characteristics, which might be seen as handicaps, into strengths. The great Martha Plimpton plays the perpetually pregnant counsel Patti Nyholm, who leverages her delicate condition and her growing brood to advantage in negotiations.

Ageism dismissed

Ageism is acceptable in most entertainment -- and often used for laughs -- but refuting that form of prejudice is at the heart of the TGW. The show upends stereotypes via the eccentric cast of judges, who are mostly north of 50. It's common to see a greybeard on the bench bristle as some tech baron on trial talks down to him about things like search engine algorithms. "You mean it's a distributed computing system?" snaps one 65-ish judge, letting him know that he can't be baffled by bullshit.

Alicia feels the ageism, because she's in her early 40s when she returns to the law career she abandoned to be a stay-at-home mom. She finds herself competing with young associates who assume she's out of touch because she's spent the last 15 years as a rich lady who lunches.

They're not wrong. All those years of quiet day drinking have left Alicia unprepared for the compromises she'll have to make. Forget the long hours; she has to cosy up to creepy wife-killers and drug-dealers with fat bank accounts.

But soon she develops a knack for turning personal failings into strengths. Her husband may be in jail, but if she overlooks the cavorting with other women and stands by him -- again, much like Hillary Clinton -- there are professional benefits that come with being Saint Alicia. She lures her husband's big-money contacts to do business with her firm, giving herself job security in a way her young competitors can't match.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the show's inclusivity is that it isn't afraid to present sad characters. Alicia, whose most frequent companion is a large glass of wine, is probably what the shrinks call "dysthymic" -- a pale shade of blue that is a large source of revenue for psychologists and self-help books. Magazines capitalize on it with articles like "Why So Many Smart People Aren't Happy."

So we can probably expect a bittersweet ending to the show. While Alicia has toughened-up and developed the flexible ethics necessary for operating in that world -- she now betrays her colleagues at the first hint of personal advantage -- her own corruption saddens her. And with only two episodes left there's no chance of a fix.

Back to stock shlock

The 12 million viewers who have a taste for original stories about grown-ups where no one wears spandex-and-a-cape will miss the series. There's nothing comparable on our screens. And the recent pop culture brouhaha about TV's season enders, when shows cut the characters that are narrative clutter, says less about identity politics than it does about how much sensationalist schlock is still on the schedule.

Variety's TV critic Maureen Ryan recently complained that white, straight male characters carry a "cloak of invisibility" when it comes time for lay-offs. But no one mentions that the two shows that kicked off the controversy for ousting their leading ladies -- Sleepy Hollow and Castle -- are not far short of awful.

Ryan's own list of racist, sexist, and homophobic offenders reads like a guide to the worst TV shows: The Vampire Diaries (an undead romance for teens), Arrow (the comic book character), The 100 (cheesy science fiction)... bigotry is the least of their problems: the dialogue alone on these steaming piles of clichés will have you weeping tears of laughter.

So the question shouldn't be why are they cutting their female stars, it ought to be: why are shows this bad still filling our screens in what is supposedly TV's Golden Age?

I don't have an answer. But I bet the writers of The Good Wife would! They know all about the compromises we make when we enter the marketplace.  [Tyee]

Read more: Gender + Sexuality, Film

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