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Essay: The Good Wife

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images
Julianna Margulies, actress in The Good Wife, attends the AOL BUILD Series at AOL Studios In New York in 2016.

Lake Effect essayist Joanne Wientraub used to work as a TV critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, but there was one show that debuted after she left her job as a critic that she was determined to avoid at all costs.

However, it turns out that her relationship with that show would change after it got her through a time of need:  

From the very start, I've had an unusual relationship with The Good Wife, a drama that aired on CBS from 2009 to 2016 and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. It debuted one year after I left my job as TV critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and that had a lot to do with it. I used to say back in my critic days that there were shows I loved to watch and shows they had to pay me to watch, and The Good Wife seemed, from what I could tell, to be in the second category. This was despite great reviews from critics I respected, and friends who, over the years, would shake their heads sadly and say, "Gee, you're still not watching The Good Wife?" as if I were turning my back on a basket full of golden retriever puppies or the world's best shrimp cocktail.

But by 2009, no one was paying me to watch TV anymore, and as much as I reveled in watching what I wanted, even better was not watching what I didn't want to watch. And I had a hunch that a broadcast drama about a woman who comes back from a scandal caused by her politically prominent husband seeing a prostitute, and I think you know what I mean by "seeing," would be lots of fun to skip.

Also, even had I been more interested, there was the problem of jumping onto a speeding train. The best thing about 21st-century TV drama is also the worst thing: the long, intertwined story arcs, which require you to know what happened in Season l if you're going to make any sense at all out of Season 3. This kind of viewing demands almost as much commitment as child raising, and this particular child already had lots of loving parents and obviously didn't need me to tie its shoes or put it through college.

But I mentioned that my relationship with this show was unusual, and here's the strangest part. For the seven seasons it was on CBS, I took great care to avoid spoilers. Would Alicia, the spurned wife turned plucky and of course wildly successful attorney, go back to her slimy husband? Would her kids make it through high school without undue trauma? Would she ever throttle her mother-in-law, who, as I was to learn, richly deserved throttling, or at least a good slap upside the head?

I studiously avoided reading anything that would provide the answers to these questions, because somewhere deep inside I felt as if The Good Wife might be in my future. Hey, maybe I'd run out of books to read. Maybe I'd be laid up with a broken leg someday. You never know, you know?

Well, never mind the leg. One dark, freezing winter night I fell and broke my wrist, and it turns out that balancing a book on a cast and using an iPad one-handed are both even less fun than they sound like. But by then I was no stranger to the addictive delights of streaming video, so I fired up Amazon and plunged into the world of The Good Wife's Alicia Florrick, played by Julianna Margulies. Listeners, do I even have to tell you how quickly I got hooked, and how many cold gray hours I whiled away watching a show that nobody was paying me to watch?

Oh, sure, I had occasional reservations. For someone who hadn't practiced law for a dozen years, Alicia sure won a lot of cases. And she'd gloat. Boy, would she gloat. Once a judge even told her to stop gloating, which I really appreciated. All TV lawyers gloat, especially on CBS, and it’s about time someone told tell them to stop.

But I adored Alicia anyway — for her guts, her intelligence, her humor, her great hair and her $2,500 designer suits. I adored the fact that, despite looking like Julianna Margulies, she was woefully unlucky in love. I adored her family, except for that deliciously hissable mother-in-law. And I adored her colleagues, none more so than her firm's private investigator, an amazing piece of work whose name was Kalinda but who I thought of as Genius Dominatrix Barbie.

Kalinda kicked butt and took names. Tiny and fearless, she wore tall boots, short skirts and tight leather jackets with tricky zippers, and if she couldn't get the goods on you, you were even trickier than those zippers. Kalinda taught Alicia to do tequila shots at their favorite bar, and when they had a falling out around Season 4 it was as if I'd lost my own tiny genius dominatrix drinking buddy.

And then, in Season 5, something happened that I'm not going to talk about, because you, too, might break your wrist and be glad I didn't lay a spoiler on you. It was painful and horrible and utterly grown up in a way network dramas almost never are. In terms of plotting and presentation, it was like something out of one of the best and most sophisticated cable dramas, like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, and when I came out of mourning for the loss I loved The Good Wife even more.

I came to the end of the series, all 156 episodes of it, months ago, and I still miss it. With all the thousands of options that video streaming offers, I haven’t found anything that compares to it, though "Transparent," on Amazon, and Nurse Jackie and Orange Is the New Black, both on Netflix, have all come close. 

It’s funny, isn’t it, how we watch TV in 2018? Streaming gives us something old, something new, something made up, something true. And when it comes to the best of all that bounty, nobody has to pay me a dime to watch.

Lake Effect essayist Joanne Weintraub is the former TV critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She’s currently a freelance writer and editor.