TV Review: THE GOOD WIFE, 2.1 – "Taking Control"

I don't easily warm to legal dramas because, to me, they conjure images of berobed barristers in dusty wigs speaking jargon, and I can't shake the feeling that catching criminals is more exciting than trying them in court. It's easier to stomach a legal drama in film, knowing you have a finite commitment to the process, but the prospect of watching the events of a courtroom every week has never appealed. The glossier American legal dramas (sans wigs and stuffy grandiloquence) often have this bookish vibe undercut in creative ways. Ally McBeal daydreamed of dancing babies, Damages hardly steps foot inside an actual courtroom, and Eli Stone was distracted by divine visions. Which is why The Good Wife came us such an unexpected surprise last year, for striking the perfect balance between episodic legal intrigues and serialized family drama, with no need for gimmicks or distractions. A stylistic throwback to '90s programming, The Good Wife concerns middle-aged housewife Alisha Florrick (Julianna Margulies), spouse of Chicago's revered state attorney Peter Florrick (Chris Noth); a man professionally embarrassed over a sex and corruption scandal, narrowly avoiding jail later in the season. Grappling with the likely disintegration of her marriage and the intrusive glare of the tabloid media last season, Alisha was forced to reprise her career as a litigator to provide for her two teenage kids, finding work as a junior associate at Stern, Lockhart & Gardner. The first quarter of season 1 largely stuck to a formula, albeit one that wisely evolved, with Alisha discovering her sympathetic media image as "the good wife" had the tendency to make people trust her, and therefore ask for her legal representation because she's relatable. Alisha became something of a talisman for the financially-troubled law firm, run by devout liberal Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) and preppy childhood friend Will Gardner (Josh Charles), where she often working with the help of in-house private investigator Kalinda (Archie Panjabi). The Good Wife did a wonderful job balancing case-of-the-week plots with the overarching story of the Florrick's marriage and Peter's legal woes last season. Neither element of the show overwhelmed the other; rather, they complimented each other. It takes good writing to make me invest in episodic stories these days, as I'm naturally drawn to ongoing narratives, and this series definitely crafted them with a skill I hadn't seen in a long time. The cast are all very strong, particularly Margulies -- who bagged herself a Golden Globe before the first season had even ended, although it was her co-star Panjabi who lifted a prized Emmy, to many people's surprise. Anyhow, Margulies imbues Alisha with a pleasing amount of depth and gets to reveal different facets of her three-dimensional character. Fragile, but strong, Margulies is convincing as a lawyer decades older than most of her colleagues, while equally believable as a dedicated mother and a wife who feels cheated. With her panda-like face and quiet demeanour, Margulies exudes sympathy (and sometimes naivety) as Alisha, but there's also a steely resolve and determined streak behind the composure that occasionally breaks through. Season 2 has a lot to live up to, particularly as much of the original premise has moved on, with Alisha's husband now exonerated. We ended season 1 on a disappointingly dull note, with Alisha having to choose between the two loves of her life: husband Peter, who expects her to stand by his side at a press conference to celebrate his release (bookending the pilot's opening scene), and boss Will, who's come to realize he loves Alisha after working with her again, but is sending her mixed signals. "Taking Control" continued this scene in its opening, adding a moment when Will leaves a voicemail on Alisha's phone, professing his love, which Peter's campaign manager Eli Gold (Alan Cumming) listens to and calmly deletes. This premiere knitted a few standalone stories together, mostly putting the Alisha/Will/Peter baggage to one side after the teaser. Another political scandal hits the news, but rather than take the spotlight off the Florrick's woes, Eli warns Alisha that the media will be re-examining her own husband's scandal for comparisons. (There's an amusing scene where a body language expert noted the positioning of Alisha's feet when she was standing next to Peter at a press conference, highlighting the ridiculousness of these news stories.) In particular, Alisha's asked to be on the lookout for so-called "trackers" -- undercover press who will try to get a quote from Alisha, posing as strangers and interrupting her day. The case-of-the-week was interesting, as the owner of an anti-war blog was put on trial for murdering a fellow blogger, with his defense being that the government framed him because of his embarassing leak of a US drone killing an unarmed man in Afghanistan. Alisha was assigned to be the man's standby counsel by the obstinate judge, whom she later locking horns with over his pressuring of witness who decided to "plead the fifth". A fine moment of drama, spun from two people having a brief public disagreement. I was less interested in Kalinda's storyline, as she was tasked to investigate the blogger's claim he was framed, only to find herself working alongside a male sleuth she didn't get along with. Knowing Panjabi won an Emmy can't help cloud your expectations of her now -- and, while she is good, she didn't deserve that Emmy, and this episode didn't seem to work for her. There were so many moments where Panjabi underplayed her part so much that you'd be excused for thinking she'd forgotten her lines. Overall, "Taking Control" may have disappointed people expecting fireworks, as it instead shifted the series back to something approaching status quo. It remains to be seen if season 2's intention to create compelling storylines will work, or if The Good Wife is another example of a US drama that only deserved one self-contained season, but this was a decent start. I remain charmed by the performances, appreciative of its slick style and storytelling technique, and invested in the lives of these characters.
WRITERS: Robert King & Michelle King DIRECTOR: Félix Alcalá CAST: Julianna Margulies, Matt Czuchry, Archie Panjabi, Graham Phillips, Makenzie Vega, Alan Cumming, Josh Charles & Christine Baranski TRANSMISSION: 6 January 2011, More4, 9PM

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