Television

TELEVISION

Why the ‘Good Wife’ is network TV’s last great drama

Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick in CBS’s “The Good Wife.”
Jeff Neumann/CBS
Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick in CBS’s “The Good Wife.”

“The Good Wife” is ending Sunday night, which, to its loyal fans, is a bleak piece of news. At its best, the CBS drama was deep enough to break your heart, dark enough to trace America’s political gutter, and dishy enough to scratch that primetime itch for outrageous scandal. Colorful, intelligent, not insulting, it is network TV’s last great drama.

The “Good Wife” characters, so captivating and, at times, freaky, were one of the show’s strengths. They could be fascinatingly changeable, like Kalinda, a unique orphan of the universe with no true moral center. And then, like Eli Gold or David Lee, they could be as amusingly hard and unyielding as Diane Lockhart’s hair helmet. They could be kooky, like Alicia’s mother, and they could be spooky, like Colin Sweeney. And there was a sprawling city of those characters across the show’s seven seasons, from the shameless lawyers and shady clients to the peculiar family members and warped judges, not least of all the one played by Ana Gasteyer, who insisted lawyers follow each of their statements with “in my opinion.”

It was an emblematic show that spoke directly to the politics, the media, and the gender issues of the decades since the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Set in Chicago, the action opened with one of our era’s now ritualistic images: Alicia Florrick standing by her philandering state’s attorney husband, Peter, while cameras flashed at them. The scenario evoked not only Hillary Clinton’s loyalty to her husband but that of many political wives since — Huma Abedin, Wendy Vitter, Silda Spitzer, and Suzanne Thompson Craig, to name a few. And then the show went backstage, behind the political theater, to explore how these marital circumstances might play out, what the phrase “good wife” means, what role political enemies might play in exposing the truth, and how an accomplished woman might cope with being reduced to a Tammy Wynette cliché.

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Created by Robert and Michelle King, the show was full of big, contradictory ideas about gun control and the Internet, marriage and adultery, campaigning and media spinning. The purview was broad and impressive, and the scripts didn’t shy away from hard questions. But “The Good Wife” was also filled with light pleasures, both aspirational (the Florricks’ epic apartment, Alicia’s impeccable outfits) and comic (the war between Alicia and Jackie Florrick). I will always think of “The Good Wife” as a drama of salient issues, but I will smile, too, at its comedy — the lawyer played by Mamie Gummer who pretended to be an innocent, or Eli’s spit take when Governor Florrick’s ethics counselor, suspected of having an affair with her boss, said she planned to name her baby Peter.

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One of the worst parts of losing “The Good Wife” is that it is the only ambitious broadcast network drama still standing. All due respect, CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, and the CW for your commercial-mindedness and persistence, but factory-built procedurals, hollow comic book adventures, and Shonda Rhimes are not the stuff of outstanding TV. It’s not hard to understand why the networks have been shut out of the Emmys’ best drama race since 2011, pushed aside by the more inspired series on basic cable, pay cable, and streaming services.

By definition, “The Good Wife” was a courtroom drama and a legal procedural, and it could easily have been yet another iteration of “Law & Order” by way of “Judging Amy.” But the Kings brought extra brain power to the table, and the show broke new ground, particularly in its cases of the week. The trials took on new technologies such as artificial intelligence, search engines, and drone surveillance and showed the fresh challenges they brought to our legal system. Some of those episodes introduced complicated material without in any way slowing the pace. And the writers never shied away from charged topics such as the death penalty and Bitcoin, and they often left the moral of the story afloat in a sea of ambiguity.

The Kings also understood that if, at the heart of their procedural, they were going to give us a character study of a woman starting over, they’d need to deliver a richly layered character who wasn’t merely likable. Alicia was endlessly intriguing with her poker face (thanks, Julianna Margulies), her attraction to and fear of power, and her bewildering relationship with her husband. Alicia could be cold, but she was never off-putting enough to endanger our sympathy or interest. Just as the legal cases were, at their best, complex, so was Alicia.

There is good news here, however, and that is that “The Good Wife” is leaving the air. And not an episode too soon.

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I know of few fans who don’t believe that the show’s potential has been fully used up after seven seasons. Really, five seasons might have been the ideal length. Like a lot of network product, the writers began to strain to fill 22 episodes per year, and recently — particularly since the murder of Will Gardner, which was pulled off miraculously without spoiler leaks — that effort has been obvious. The writers never quite knew what to do with the great promise of Kalinda, but by the time she left last season, she wasn’t just superfluous, she was a vacuum. Alicia’s run for office, the ever-changing lineup of the law firm, the linkup of Howard and Jackie, everything having to do with Jason — OK, I’ll stop now. The show became uneven, and the Kings were wise to bring it to a close.

It’s hard to imagine a truly successful “Good Wife” series finale, given that one strength of the show has been the number of balls it has managed to keep in the air. It would be no easy feat to let each land gracefully. Let’s hope at least a few of the story lines do resolve satisfyingly, though, especially the one involving the good wife and her long journey.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.