Is 'The Good Wife' The Last Great Network Drama?

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  • Julianna Margulies
    Julianna Margulies
    American actress

The Good Wife will end its seven-season run on Sunday night, and I think its departure is more than just the shutting-down of an excellent show that gave a lot of people a lot of pleasure. No more Good Wife on CBS may signal something else as well: Is this the last great network drama? That is to say, is there another serious, hour-long show on network TV that measures up to The Good Wife now, and how likely are we to get another one as excellent in the near future?

In retrospect, The Good Wife was a kind of stealth experiment conducted by its inventors, Robert and Michelle King. When it premiered in 2009, it had a couple of promotable elements. Its concept — wife standing by her philandering man — was often compared to Hillary and Bill Clinton’s marital life, and particularly to the prostitution scandal that ruined the career of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. And The Good Wife marked the return of Julianna Margulies to series television in a role tailor-made for her strengths as the kind of strong-yet-sensitive character that she arguably hadn’t had since the role that first brought her to prominence, in ER.

Prior to The Good Wife, Margulies’ TV career was looking iffy at best. She’d top-lined 2008’s Canterbury’s Law, playing a defense attorney. The Fox show was an attempt at quality TV produced by some talented people including Walon Green and Mike Figgis, but it was cancelled after six episodes. Before that, she’d had a nice, brief four-episode run on The Sopranos, as a lapsed addict doing drugs with Michael Imperioli’s Christopher.

Related: 25 Reasons ‘The Good Wife’ Had the Best Guest Cast Ever

The Good Wife changed everything, for Margulies, for the Kings, and for CBS. In the role of Alicia Florrick, was an immediate hit with the public and critics, won her two Emmys, and the show was hailed for its unusually sharp and unpredictable take on marriage, politics, and the politics of a political marriage. The show may have been initially perceived as being right in CBS’ wheelhouse — a courtroom drama, a case a week, with romance and guest stars, right? — but soon enough, we all realized it was something special. The Good Wife found novel ways of approaching not merely the subject of infidelity and careerism, but also developed strong, recurring storylines about national security issues, gun control, abortion, religion, and that most controversial of topics, the increasingly fraught relationship between Margulies’ Alicia and Archie Panjabi’s investigator Kalinda Sharma, both on-screen and off.

There were times when The Good Wife was ham-strung by the very excellence of its casting. No one expected Josh Charles, who hadn’t had a first-rate TV showcase since Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night, to become such a worthy leading-man playing Alicia’s colleague-lover Will Gardner. When Charles expressed interest in leaving the show, the Kings staged a sudden death for Will that proved to be one of TV’s increasingly rare total-surprise events that also reverberated emotionally throughout the rest of the show’s run. On the other hand, there were roles that could have been so much more — the Kings had found a wonderful replacement for some good Alicia-lovin’ in Matthew Goode’s Finn Polmar, and they had come up with a corker of a role for Oliver Platt in a plot-line for Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockhart, but in both cases, their storylines were cut short due to other commitments by those actors.

Nevertheless, The Good Wife, even when it veered into a dud subplot (three words: Cary Agos, jailbird), created a rich, multi-faceted world that mirrored life’s ambiguities and grown-up complexities. It stood apart from everything else on network television, achieving the kind of mature storytelling that we’d come to expect only from premium cable (name-your-favorite-HBO-classic), basic cable fare like Breaking Bad, and streaming programming like House of Cards.
In recent years, the hour-long network programming that has caused the biggest stirs have either been well-wrought soap operas (Scandal; Empire) or unpredictable genre exercises (the deconstructed telenovela Jane the Virgin; the musical Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). And to be clear, I’m not saying Serious Drama is better than those genres (you’re reading someone who spent years arguing for the greatness of Buffy the Vampire Slayer before it was cool to do so), just that these fall under different categories than the network drama. Certainly network TV hasn’t offered us anything in its traditional genres — the lawyer show, the cop show, the doctor show, the family drama — that’s come close to The Good Wife’s excellence. (Parenthood, you are once again so sorely missed.)

So to answer my headline question: Yes, for the immediate future at least, The Good Wife is going out as the last great network drama. That’s not to say that network can’t yield up another great one — in fact, I’m betting that, over the next few years, we’re going to see many talented people and ideas receive opportunities to do challenging work on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and the CW, because it’s the nature of television (and pop culture in general) to progress in cycles. What would be more unlikely, from our vantage point in 2016, for the next-generation ground-breaker, a Sopranos/Transparent/Mr. Robot of the future, to come from a supposedly stodgy network such as CBS? Stranger things happen every day. Goodbye, Alicia Florrick, may you live happily ever after. Truly.

The Good Wife season finale airs Sunday night at 9 p.m. on CBS.