Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Good Wife and United States of Tara: One Circle Opens Wide, The Other One Closes

Julianne Margulies in The Good Wife

Note: the following post contains spoilers for the recent seasons of The Good Wife and United States of Tara.

I was glad to see CBS’s very fine drama The Good Wife do so well in the recent Emmy Award nominations. It was a fitting recognition of last year’s best new network TV series and also a reminder that when they want to, the free channels can also match the quality of cable series and in the comparative case of United States of Tara, which imploded in its second year, surpass them, too.

(I was also pleased to note that ABC’s clever sitcom Modern Family dominated the recent nominations, as well, from among the new network shows that premiered last season, though I am baffled by FOX’s Glee, which had the most nods among the neophyte TV series. Well mounted as Glee is, it strikes me that this musical drama about a group of outcast teens who begin to discover themselves when they join their school’s fledgling glee club, isn’t doing anything that Fame, the movie and TV series, didn’t already do back in the early eighties.)

While Modern Family is the latest smart comedy to hit the airwaves (post-Frasier, How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory), The Good Wife is the show that really reworks a tried – and tired – formula. (Modern Family, for all its many virtues, is following in the footsteps of several previous comedy series, such as The Office, both versions, and the short lived 1980 Helen Shaver/Beau Bridges series United States, by eschewing a laugh track and playing out as a mockumentary.)

Julianna Margulies and Chris Noth
The Good Wife’s first season begins and ends with a press conference. The show opens with Chicago’s Cook County State’s Attorney Peter Florrick (Law & Order and Sex and the City's Chris Noth) announcing his resignation from his post after the release of several incriminating sex tapes and then, in the final scene of the last episode of the season,  concludes as he, newly freed from prison, proclaims his intention to gain back his old job. In between, the series focuses on his wife Alicia (E.R.’s Julianna Margulies), who, sandbagged by the news of her husband’s infidelities, has to decide whether to stand by him, as a ‘good wife,’ while he is in jail. She is forced, because of economic circumstances, to go back to work as a litigator, a profession she briefly held thirteen years earlier before leaving to get married. There, she has to win over skeptical younger coworkers, such as the firm’s private investigator Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi), and impress Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), one of the firm’s heads. In addition, she has to come to terms with her romantic feelings towards Will Gardner (Josh Charles), one of her other bosses, whom she knows from law school and who invited her to join the firm of Stern, Lockhart and Gardner.

Influenced by recent revelations concerning the sexual indiscretions of high profile political figures like Eliot Spitzer and John Edwards, The Good Wife, which was created by Michelle and Robert King, is most compelling when it concentrates on Alicia and her interactions with her family – her husband, of course, but also with her two upset teenage children and a meddlesome mother-in-law – and colleagues. (The series also touches on the recent American economic downturn, as the firm has to shed staff and drastically cut expenses.) Not that the cases she handles aren’t of interest – two of them involving an oily defendant (Emmy- nominated Dylan Baker), who is heavily into S & M, are creepily fascinating – but the series is freshest when it veers away from the courtroom.

That’s because unlike most American network TV dramas, even the best ones, which are generally divided into good guys and bad guys, The Good Wife is most often cast in welcome shades of grey. Kalinda, for example, who remarks in episode one, that she was twelve years old when Alicia last practiced law, would seem to be an obvious foil for the older woman, someone you would expect resents Alicia for returning to the work force and becoming, in effect, her superior, but it doesn’t play out that way. Kalinda, in fact, becomes her best ally, offering advice along the way on how to navigate the firm’s internecine workplace politics, when not digging up valuable info to help Alicia win her cases. That strategy includes making Alicia indispensable to Stern, Lockhart and Gardner so she can be chosen as the firm’s permanent junior associate. Her competition for that position is Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry), a twentysomething man, who isn’t cast as her expected villainous opponent. He’s ambitious and intent on gaining any advantage he can over Alicia but not to the point that he resorts to sleazy methods to win the permanent job at the firm. You like him even as you hope Alicia comes out on top. And since she is the star of the show, she does, of course. A bitter Cary is then hired by Peter Florrick’s successor and nemesis, Glenn Childs (Titus Welliver), which promises a fresh dynamic between Cary and Alicia in season two.

Archie Panjabi and Julianna Margulies
The show is also honest about how women behave in the higher echelons of law and politics, in that they’re not automatically allies because of their gender. Diane Lockhart is a lifelong Democrat and feminist but she’s no fan of Alicia’s, suspicious of the younger woman’s past relationship with Will and unconvinced that Alicia is cut out for the job of litigator. She’s also displeased that Alicia isn’t seeking out her services as a mentor, despite Kalinda’s advice. The fact that both are women trying to succeed in what is still mostly a man’s world cuts no ice with Lockhart. (Both Baranski, who is better known for her comedic TV work, such as in the CBS sitcom Cybill, which she pretty much stole from headliner Cybill Shepherd, and Panjabi (Bridget Jones’ Diary), deservedly, copped Emmy nominations for their roles in The Good Wife, as did Margulies.) Diane also amusingly begins a relationship with Kurt McVeigh (Gary Cole), a Republican, gun-loving Sarah Palin fan who is the antithesis of everything she has ever believed in. While their relationship carries a whiff of the condescension Hollywood usually displays in its portraits of conservative characters, Cole doesn’t resort to parody and the couple’s banter is delightful, revealing a coy, flirtatious side to the usually buttoned down Lockhart.

It’s in the characters of Will and Alicia, and in their fascinatingly tentative relationship, that The Good Wife really shines. Will is a charmer but also someone who doesn’t hesitate to subvert the law if it can help him win a case. (Josh Charles was neglected by the Emmys but shouldn’t have been.) Will, also quite content to overlook the fact that his client isn’t necessarily innocent, is prepared to bury newfound evidence that can undermine his arguments. That’s a reality in jurisprudence, but except for The Practice and Boston Legal which almost fetishized the fact that their lawyers always defended the guilty, American TV has always been more comfortable portraying prosecutors who want to put away the criminals than the defense attorneys who want to exonerate them. Here, not only Will but even Alicia will stoop to underhanded methods to get their clients off; Alicia’s actually quite conflicted about such matters but she’ll still do what her bosses tell her to and she’ll also allow Peter, despite her angry feelings about his betrayal, to feed her privileged information to help her shine in the courtroom, even though those actions aren’t ethically kosher. Margulies is one of those recessive actors who shows less in her face and more in her actions. As Alicia, who only occasionally lets her deep emotions rise to the surface, Margulies commands the screen.

Will and Alicia’s interest in each other is also fresh, since she is married and infidelity is not something we expect from our TV heroines. Truth be told, Alicia isn’t sure what she should do about her feelings for Will, who is calling on her cell phone even as her husband announces his newfound political plans in the season one cliffhanger. Will Alicia leave Peter and take a chance on romance with Josh? Likely not, since the show is called The Good Wife, not The Good Ex-Wife, but whatever her decisions, the possibilities for the show now open up considerably. If she stays with her husband, Alicia will finally have to confront her anger towards him, even more so as it looks like he has committed other crimes, besides his sexual ones. She’s also struck a deal with the devil, in the person of Rahm Emanuel-like fixer Eli Gold (Emmy-nominated Alan Cumming, a welcome addition to the full time cast next season), who is shepherding Peter on his way, hopefully, back to polite society and has helped Alicia keep her job. She owes him big time and the payment has come due.

The four faces of Tara

Unlike The Good Wife, HBO’s United States of Tara, which initially seemed the more original of the two shows, has become narrower as it’s gone on, and less interesting. Tara, played by talented Aussie actress Toni Collette (Muriel’s Wedding, The Sixth Sense, Japanese Story), is unique in that she has split personalities, also known as dissociative identity disorder (DID). She never knows when she’ll turn into one of her other personalities, who include a macho Vietnam vet named Butch, a demure fifties housewife named Alice and a slutty teenager named T. Her “alters”, as she calls them, are wreaking havoc on her loving family. Did I mention that United States of Tara is a comedy? That was something new since movies and TV shows on the still little understood subject of DID had always played it for drama (Sybil) or used it as fodder for thrillers (Dressed to Kill). (The Steve Martin/Lily Tomlin comedy All of Me did involve two personalities inhabiting one body but it was more concerned with gender differences than the psychological basis for split personalities.) Diablo Cody (Juno’s screenwriter) decided on a different tack and for the first season, mostly succeeded in carving out a unique TV niche for the series, bolstered especially by Collette, who gave a tour de force performance in the role(s) of Tara, one for which she rightfully received a 2009 Best Actress Emmy award.

In season two, however, United States of Tara displayed its limitations and fell into the creative trap inherent in its premise. Since DID is universally considered to be an outgrowth of physical/sexual abuse in childhood, the show could only eventually explain Tara’s “alters” in that manner and once that abuse is revealed, at it was at the end of season two, there really is nowhere for the series to go. (This isn’t a spoiler since it’s where the show was heading right from the get-go) What could possibly happen in the announced season three that would be fresh? I think Cody and her writers knew they had reached a dead end, which could explain the second season’s lassitude and ho-hum nature. A couple of new personalities, including a Jewish therapist and a five-year-old version of Tara were added to her palette – why? – and her uninteresting kids (a geeky gay son, a bitter daughter) remained so. Even John Corbett (Sex and the City) who was so good in season one as Tara’s supportive husband, was going through the motions in season two. Rosemarie DeWitt, as Tara’s ‘normal’ sister had a juicy pregnancy plot-line but her story wasn’t enough to sustain the show. And Collette, while still believable as Tara, began to seem less a flesh and blood persona and more a series of actorly ticks and mannerisms: Look, ma. I can be any personality you want me to be!

By the end of season two, United States of Tara may as well have ended, period. There’s no reason to stay with it anymore unless Diablo Cody pulls a rabbit out of her hat and morphs the show into something startling, and that’s unlikely. The Good Wife, on the other hand, is heading into a whole realm of new dramatic pathways, opening up a circle where United States of Tara closed one. Judging by the uninspired crop of promised (threatened?) network offerings in 2010/11 (a Tom Selleck cop show, a remake of Hawaii Five-0!), The Good Wife will, no doubt, continue to stand out from its largely uninspired, reductive competition. I can’t wait.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.

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