Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Good Wife 1-06: Conjugal

We open on a scene that is blatantly not a scene.  A big, burly black man straight out of central casting robs a convenience store, all of which plays out in action-movie fashion, including shakycam taken to an almost parodic extent.  This is a show -- specifically a low-budget, ripped-from-the-headlines TV movie, but not the show we're watching, and everything from its stylistic choices to its colour palette inform us of this.  When we pan back from the TV into the law office we're used to, it's the comparison of sensationalized television to a more complex and less convenient reality.

Of course, The Good Wife is in itself a strange version of reality, no matter what it chooses to compare itself to.  It's a glossy primetime legal drama, about good-looking lawyers with perfect hair who always end up defending the right side of a case, and its central characters -- despite their personal problems and downfalls -- exist in the rarefied air of the 1%.  The visual style is an elegant, comfortable mixture of golds and browns, which is definitely different from the action movie faux-realism of the film within the show, but not really any more or less truthful.

Compare and contrast:

These are the ideas that The Good Wife continually toys with: truth and deception, reality and fantasy.  Throughout "Conjugal", and the series at large (at least judging from the episodes I've seen so far), we're offered a variety of fakes and simulacra, with the heroes creating these deceptions as often as not.  The episodic plot here is a fairly straightforward treatment of this: Alicia and Carrie are charged with defending a death-row inmate, who they discover has been falsely convicted.  The false narrative is replaced with a true one, resulting in a triumph for justice.  Elsewhere in the episode, things are not so simple.

Take the titular conjugal visit, which is staged so that Alicia can get information from her husband without them being monitored.  The express purpose for the visit is fake -- they don't even share a bed, with Peter sleeping on the floor.  The simulacrum bedroom that the prison provides is a transparent example of falseness.  But it is a legitimate reconnecting experience for them, and in the end the lie becomes a form of truth -- the two being around each other clearly begins to heal their marriage and Peter's mental state, even if they don't physically do the deed.

I have to give a lot of credit to Josh Charles' performance here.  Peter is theoretically a repulsive character, but Charles invests him with a charm and at least an appearance of decency that makes it obvious why Alicia would try to save their marriage.  It's also suggested repeatedly that Peter was more effective and scrupulous in his professional life than most of his colleagues, drawing parallels with Elliot Spitzer, who just happened to have his personal dirt dug up just as he was moving against the banks.

The idea of falsity also comes up at the beginning of the episode, with the inmate's widow.  We first see her making what appears to be a personal, emotional plea to Alicia, begging her to recognize the humanity of the man she's defending and offering her a picture of their family.  Later on we learn that she went through the exact seem routine for Carrie, producing an identical photograph.  Both lawyers are amused at the woman's duplicity, but don't fully condemn her -- "Hey, it worked, didn't it?"  There are types of falseness that "Conjugal" resolutely condemns, such as the police officer's negligence and deceit, but it also recognizes that deceit can be employed to good ends -- and that it can also contain elements of the truth, as the wife's story certainly does.

The standard episode of The Good Wife features a case-of-the-week plotline as well as an ongoing narrative involving Alicia's background as the wife of a disgraced politician.  "Conjugal" is more episodic than most, with the above-mentioned conjugal visit being the only real part that touches on Alicia's past, and that advances character more than the plot.  It's a bit of an odd choice, as what we have here is a stock legal drama plot that is well-executed but not exactly reinvented.

Lawyers may be the third point in the holy trinity of TV professions, but unlike the other two -- cops and doctors -- TV has to go a lot farther to establish attorneys as a force for good.  (I would probably disagree with the idea of police as being automatically heroic, but most people wouldn't).  In reality Alicia would spend a lot of time defending guilty men, which is a necessary aspect of the criminal justice system, and it may be possible that these cases happen in the margins between episodes.  But, at least in the episodes I've seen thus far, Alicia falls on the side of justice, and cleanly[1].

This isn't to say that the episodic plotlines aren't enjoyable in the same way that a lot of genre entertainment is -- even if we know the end result, there's a lot of pleasure in seeing how we get there.  But there are also problematic aspects in this structure that it's hard to ignore. The tone of this episode, in which the courageous white lawyers save the life of a burly black guy, has undeniable Blind Side-ish overtones.  The accused's wife asks the lawyers to consider the man as a human being, but the show never really does -- he's a cause, and little more.  (Hell, I can't even remember his name).  In a series that spends a lot of time complicating conventional narratives, it's disconcerting to see the savior narrative presented so straightforwardly.

So we have an unjustly sentenced black inmate, but "Conjugal" seems to go out of its way to disclaim the racial outrage that usually comes with such cases.  There's some suggestion of racism in his conviction, but this is all pinned on an individual, the corrupt police officer who rigged the line-up.  Worse, there's a scene where the lawyers discuss the inaccuracy of cross-race identification, and their brought-in expert describes it as a reciprocal and universal phenomenon.  She demonstrates this by showing how Kalinda (the only non-white cast member) can't correctly identify a white man.  This turns an issue that's often attributed to personal racism into something that's scientifically natural and not specific to any one race.  In other words: Hello rich white audience.  You know, it's totally not your fault that you can't tell all those black guys on The Wire apart.

We end up discovering that it was simply another black criminal who did the crime, although this is assumed on fairly shaky ground.  A situation that has potential for institutional criticism becomes a story about one lazy cop who got the wrong perp.  All so that we can get the money shot of our cuddly inmate tearfully forgiving the white woman who misidentified him.

And so I end up once again frustrated with the two disparate parts of The Good Wife: the interesting and nuance ongoing storyline and the fairly standard episodic storylines.  It's a good idea for a format, one that preserves the episode as a significant narrative unit while still being able to tell a longer-form story, but one side of the equation undoubtedly feels fresher than the other.  Perhaps it's just that the case-of-the-week narrative are obviously structured around a familiar format, and have to hit the same beats like clockwork, but they just feel too pat and morally simple compared to the more complex world of politics the show is enmeshed in.

Of course, if The Good Wife was just about Alicia's relationship with her husband, it would probably be a movie and not a TV show.  And its impetus for episodic plots seems a lot more natural than, for example, the one in Pushing Daisies.  With a little more elbow grease and nuance, the cases of the week could become as interesting as the long-term political dealings... and judging from the increasing praise the series has gotten for parts I haven't watched, I don't think that's an unreasonable hope.

Next week: "Would you say we'd be venturing into a zone of danger?"

[1] To its credit, The Good Wife is willing to devote episodes to a lot of less sensational cases -- the episode after this is about a slip-and-fall suit, for instance.  But there are some institutions of TV lawyering that don't change.

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