For years my Mom has been saying that The Good Wife is the best show on television. My Mom knows her TV, so I promised myself one day I would check it out.
Momma was right.
The Good Wife might have the most compelling storytelling style I’ve seen. In a lot of shows you’re able to look away from the screen from time to time: Send a text, maybe grab a snack. You might miss “something,” but not necessarily anything you won’t be told later. This is not the case with The Good Wife. Not only does each scene have critical information, but every scene is brief, filled with multiple layers of tension, and it doesn’t repeat itself. The Good Wife is one of those shows that starts and says, “I’m going to start running and I don’t care if you get left behind — keep up.”
So I sat down and analyzed an episode from Season One to figure out why The Good Wife was so good at creating compelling television, and how it was doing it.
Note: If you haven’t started watching The Good Wife yet, I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, but you’ll need some details for context. Don’t worry, you won’t have time to think about these “spoilers” while you’re watching; you’ll be too busy.
The Good Wife begins with Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), a State Attorney, admitting in a press conference that he’s had an affair and that he’s resigning from office. He is subsequently arrested for suspected misuse of his position as State Attorney. The first season of the show is about the aftermath of this event, particularly in how Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) attempts to rebuild her and her children’s lives. Because Alicia was a housewife while her husband was in office, she’s forced to return to work as a lawyer, but due to her long hiatus she starts as a Junior Associate at a law firm. She has an apartment where she lives with her two teenage children, Zach Florrick (Graham Phillips) and Grace Florrick (Makenzie Vega), with her Mother-in-Law, Jackie (Mary Beth Peil) watching the kids. The episode I analyzed was Episode 15: Bang, where Peter has been granted an appeal to his case and allowed to leave prison and return to the apartment under house arrest.
Here are five things I noticed that helps the show achieve it’s tension.
1. Almost Every Scene has Characters with Ambivalent or Conflicting Attitudes
This is the beginning of the episode. There are four characters, Jackie (the Mother-in-Law), Alicia (The Good Wife), and her two children, Grace and Zach. They have just been discussing Peter’s return home. What’s interesting about this scene is every single character feels differently about this event and we get to watch them all react to the discussion differently. Jackie thinks her son is the Golden Boy who can do no wrong and thinks it’s great he’s coming home. Alicia is a complex person and has mixed feelings. Grace loves her Father, but has been mad at him since the arrest. Zach appears to be supportive, but he’s complicated and independent; his feelings aren’t clear either.
Within 20 seconds there’s a knock at the door. It’s Peter. Suddenly the person they were all discussing, worrying about, and having conflicting feelings about is back in their lives and isn’t going anywhere.
2. The Show Frequently Introduces Characters in Scenes to Change the Social Dynamics and Add Conflict
When Peter shows up at the door, he’s accompanied by a Police Officer who is there to explain the rules of the house arrest to the family and to put on the anklet. Now the viewer has to consider new relationships in the scene, not just between Peter and each previous character, but all those characters together AND while being watched by a police officer. And the characters don’t tell us how they feel, we have to interpret it based on what they show us.
3. The Good Wife Shows, it Doesn’t Tell
One of the cardinal rules of storytelling is “show don’t tell.” It’s more interesting for the viewer to infer something from observation than it is to be told something. For example, instead of having a character tell us they are scared, it’s more interesting to see him huddled in a corner, hugging themselves and trembling. The Good Wife is devoted to showing, not telling.
Take Grace’s reaction to Peter in this scene. Peter has just embraced Zach and with his arm around his son, there’s his daughter, who won’t even approach him. Her one arm is positioned protectively over the other. In a weak voice she tells her Father, “we baked you a cake.” Peter asks, “would that be an upside-down, Pineapple Cake?” Then Grace’s eyes well up and she runs into her Daddy’s arms. This tells us exactly what we need to know about how Grace is feeling: Even though she’s anxious about Peter being there and probably still angry with him, she’s still Daddy’s Little Girl. And she’s reminded of this by the mention of a cake that presumably has some importance in the family. And we aren’t even told the cake has some kind of family history! We don’t need to be told, Grace’s reaction makes the association obvious. And all this has happened within one minute and fiften seconds of run time.
4. Short Scenes
Very few of the scenes in the show are longer than three minutes. Most are under two. That’s why you can’t look away from the show: If you were gone for thirty seconds, you might miss an entire scene.
The Good Wife utilizes this to build further tension. Typically the central conflict of each episode is a court case. One of the ways you build tension in movies and television is to cut from from one scene to another, and then back again. This works best if the first scene establishes a conflict for you to worry about, then takes you away from it before that conflict is resolved. This way, even though you’re in another scene you’re still worrying about the first conflict because you haven’t seen it resolved yet. So by having brief scenes in the court room and then quickly shifting to other scenes, we’re continuously invested in how the court scene will get resolved.
5. The Show Expects you to Pay Attention
The Good Wife transitions quickly from scene to scene without much transitional explanation.
In CSI they’ll learn a piece of information, one character will say it out loud, and then another character will repeat that information in how it applies to the case before cutting to commercial.
After the police officer explains the rules of house arrest to the family and we see our first moment of Alicia and Peter alone together, we are transitioned immediately into a court case where we initially don’t know who Alicia’s firm is defending, what the details of the case are, or what we’re supposed to pay attention to. We are simply begin the scene with a police officer on the stand giving testimony. We do, however, recognize characters so we have to watch the scene and look where the lawyers from Alicia’s firm are sitting, and listen to the testimony to piece together the details. The show doesn’t waste time telling you what the case is about before it begins, it expects you to figure it out for yourself.
In an age where television loves to hold your hand and tell you what we’re doing and where we’re going, it feels good to be treated like an adult.
6. Adversity Between Characters
The Good Wife frequently fills a scene with people who either disagree, or flat out don’t like each other. In this episode, Peter, his lawyer Daniel (Joe Morton), and his repuation manager Kya (Francie Swift) are meeting with a campaign strategist, Eli Gold (Alan Cumming).
To give some background, since Peter has been home there’s been a beeping he can’t find. He calls Daniel and Kya to start strategizing his return to office and in the next scene we see Daniel and Kya looking around ineffectively for the beeping sound.
So when Eli finally joins them in a later scene they begin discussing reputation. Peter says, “Eli, look, considering your reputation, I think we’re gonna have to talk about a few ground rules. Your mind tends toward expletives. You’re a classically trained pianist, and you require Saturdays off.”
And then Eli turns to Kya and says, “Who told you about Saturdays, shiksa Bambi over there?”
Immedielty animosity is created between two characters in the room. Peter continues, “I’ve also been told that in a street fight, you’re the man.” And then Eli turns around and fixes the beeping sound that no one else could find, which tells the viewer: Eli is indeed the man who solves problems.
It’s a brilliant way to show us who Eli is while creating tension amongst characters and introducing a new source of conflict for the show, all within a scene under two minutes.
Unbelievable as this may sound, this is level at which every single scene in The Good Wife operates. While other shows focus on hitting one or two home runs a season, The Good Wife is trying to do it every single episode and (so far) it is succeeding.