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The Good Wife Watch: Whose Side Are You On?

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Fantastic episode of The Good Wife last night (spoilers ahead, of course), and one that, besides some delectable courtroom twists, exemplified one more reason I love this show: I don’t think there’s another drama on network TV right now that gives its viewers credit for as much intelligence.

I’ve made this point a lot before, but when we talk about the difference between network and cable dramas (and by “cable dramas” here, I mean the heavy-hitter shows on the likes of HBO, AMC, FX and Showtime), people overemphasize the importance of cable’s freedom for swearing, violence and other extreme content.

That matters, sure—having more options available is usually an asset—but it’s not really the main thing that separates cable’s best dramas from network’s. (“Another Ham Sandwich” dispensed with CBS’s language restrictions neatly with a running device in which Amy Sedaris’ character made a vow to stop swearing, telling Eli “That was some good fishin’!” after their hook-up.) Much more important are complexity, sophistication and moral shading. Mad Men could be on a big network with a few tweaks of language—except it totally couldn’t, because of concerns audiences would not follow the storylines, would need more explained to them directly, and would not want to watch nice, handsome Jon Hamm be such an asshole every week.

The Good Wife does things, week in and week out, that network drama supposedly can’t do. It has a number of separate running storylines, for instance, to equal a pay-cable drama, while also making room for a court case of the week. It manages this by simply dropping storylines for a few weeks when necessary (say, Alicia’s tension with her mother-in-law) and trusting that you’ll remember when it gets back to them.

And “Another Ham Sandwich,” probably the best episode of this season, underscored another thing: for a show with “Good” in the title, The Good Wife’s moral lines are very blurry. This week, Will Gardner beat a grand jury indictment for bribery, sabotaging the state’s attorney’s case with the help of double-agent Kalinda. But he didn’t, from our perspective as an audience, get exonerated, exactly. The episode could somehow have demonstrated that Will was clean all along, but instead (with a bar association case hanging over him) we’re left to wonder.

The very people we cheer for in the courtroom often skate very close to ethical lines on this show (David Lee says as much), and it very deliberately leaves open the possibility that they may be skating straight across those lines when we’re not looking. (It may not be a straight-out ethical transgression, but the way Diane asks Alicia to intercede with Peter, without asking her, is a perfect example of the kind of passive-aggressive hints that we’ve gotten used to seeing Lockhart Gardner attorneys give, for things they know they can’t ask directly.) Where most legal shows will give the home team one win after another and let us assume it’s because of the characters’ brilliance, The Good Wife hangs a light on this fact and asks: could this firm be this successful honestly? When a law firm—which is after all a business—has financial incentive to stray into the gray area between honesty and criminality, won’t it do so? And can it get lost in that gray area?

It looks like we’ll explore that further as Will goes before the bar. In the meantime: great fishin’ episode.