With its boundlessly entertaining fifth season, which wrapped up on Sunday with a wonderfully giddy finale, “The Good Wife” has once again proven that it’s the best drama on network TV. Despite the loss of a major character, Josh Charles’s Will Gardner, who was shot to death during a tense trial, the show hardly lost its footing as it sprinted to the season’s finish.
“The Good Wife” is a singularly excellent series in this era of “quality TV,” in that it’s not a cable drama and it’s not trying to be a cable drama. Show creators Robert and Michelle King fully embrace network conventions — the fast pacing, the limited character depth, the cases of the week — and then spin them into something remarkably fresh, funny, and, at times, riveting. They manage to use the punctuation of commercial breaks creatively, as anyone knows who saw Eli Gold’s spit-take when he heard the name of Marilyn’s baby.
Even the extended openings of the episodes toy with custom, as they build like a symphony to a crescendo, with the sudden appearance of the minimalist title sequence.
There are almost too many strong aspects of “The Good Wife” to explore here, which is something I never thought I’d say about a drama currently on CBS, a network known for its lucrative, ably-crafted franchise procedurals. While it’s not a show that can bear intense psychological analysis that recappers bring to the likes of “Mad Men,” it’s a bottomless bag of comedic and dramatic tricks nonetheless, including absorbing plot twists, idiosyncratic characters, and the most up-to-date and sharply written legal cases anywhere on TV.
The female characters are fascinating, with Alicia at the top of the list. If we expected her to be the mousey political wife, we misunderstood how the Kings were trying to open up the word “good” in the title. Alicia, with the help of Julianna Margulies’s cool acting style (and frozen face), has evolved into a TV antiheroine of sorts, one whom we still root for even while she sometimes makes questionable decisions and stumbles into disloyalty. As she broke with Peter and Will — a back-and-forth love affair that was creatively spent and won’t be missed — she became more and more career-driven.
We’re used to male characters these days who fall somewhere in the middle of the morality spectrum, but how great to see “The Good Wife” delivering at least three complex women. In addition to Alicia, Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) has become oddly hard to admire — she sleeps with anyone who’ll give her information — and yet very easy to enjoy. Diane, too, coasts back and forth across the lines of likability, and yet she’s always compelling and sympathetic, thanks to Christine Baranski’s ability to be both vulnerable and fierce. Like every good soldier heading into daily battle, Diane always wears her helmet — a head of shellacked hair that never yields.
And the show has a rich bounty of characters and actors beyond the leads, which has helped the writers keep the stories in motion in the seven episodes since Charles left. Some shows have a secret weapon or two, that recurring character who pops up to add variety and color. “The Good Wife” has about 15 of those lovely surprises in its coffers, from Nathan Lane’s Clarke Hayden and Jerry Adler’s Howard Lyman to Stockard Channing’s Veronica and Mamie Gummer’s Nancy Crozier. The writers gave us a kind of Will replacement in Finn (Matthew Goode), wisely making it impossible for us to resent him by turning him into such a damn hero. And they brought back Michael J. Fox’s Louis Canning after Charles’s departure, a smart way to help turn the story line back to the crazy law firm politics that made the first half of the season such a blast.
And truly this season, the shifting alliances and betrayals among the firms have made up some of the show’s best drama. It has been like “Game of Thrones: Chicago,” as the original law firm broke apart and the fragments have fought to prevail. To some extent, the show has turned its focus away from the weekly legal cases and Alicia’s romantic life toward corporate competition. But still, when they were featured this season, the legal cases remained completely engaging. For the legal material, “The Good Wife” writers love to dig into the juicy, unresolved issues raised by the Internet, which gives them much more original and unpredictable material than other TV procedurals. Even the nutty plot that had the NSA listening in on the lawyers was fascinating, balancing questions of privacy in our society with a clever meta perspective on the show’s characters.
“The Good Wife” tends to behave like a controlled whirlwind, starting in medias res, without giving us our bearings, and then jumping among a broad range of plots. Sometimes the writers put too much in the mix, spin one too many plates — for instance, in the finale, giving us the dueling mothers-in-law while giving short shrift to the rift between Cary and Alicia. Also, some of the grieving for Will felt oddly obligatory; Alicia, of course, had to have her day in bed, while Kalinda had to have strange post-traumatic flashes. I’m not sure it’s possible for a show to genuinely mourn a character’s death — with the proper layerings of sorrow — amid the pressure to move forward that comes with being on network TV.
But the ambitions of “The Good Wife” are so winning, it’s hard to complain too much. Despite being TV’s equivalent of middle-aged, the show still has a nice spring in its step.
Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.