While I’m often chasing the latest “prestige” TV — your Successions, your Better Call Sauls, etc. — my constant and always screaming from the rooftop television recommendation is eternally the CBS procedural drama “The Good Wife” and its extended universe.
The early goings are structured pretty precisely as a CBS legal drama, but as the show shakes off some early-going uncertainties regarding its presentation, the secret hook of The Good Wife comes into focus. The Good Wife is not merely a “Case of the Week” show — It’s a “Confusing and sometimes Archaic but relevant aspect of America’s legal system” of the week show and to my mind the defining show of America under the Obama administration.
It’s got a pretty simple character hook — Alicia Florrick (Julianna Marguiles, who won an Emmy for this role), Wife of a disgraced Chicago D.A., attempts to return to her law career after 15 years away. She learns the ropes, makes friends, tries to hold her life together. What the show does through that, is Trojan horse a comprehensive look at justice in America, who gets burned by it, how the gnarled and tangled bureaucracy of law makes the very pursuit of justice futile, and the lengths people go to put themselves in a position to influence said justice. As the show goes on, we follow this sheltered suburban housewife face the evils of the American People and the American justice system head-on and watch it slowly erode at the person she was. It’s not as dramatic an evolution as Walter White, but it is television’s most understated and underappreciated anti-hero arc.
About ⅔ of the way into the first season, the show does something that I love about great older network dramas in that it pretty much creates its own spin-off within itself centering around Eli Gold (Alan Cumming), a Rahm Emanuel-esque campaign manager for the aforementioned D.A. who attempts to wriggle his way through America’s political machine for his client’s. The show provides the same sharp lens it applies to American law to the political circus at a local level (and takes on a larger scope as the show goes on).
The show’s world-building is on par with the ideal for the genres of shows one would generally associate with the term (fantasy, sci-fi, etc.) While a core supporting cast surrounds Alicia along the way, the recurring and guest cast expands to include just about every great New York stage actor of the past twenty years as returning judges, assistant district attornies, competing lawyers, clients, and beyond. The Chicago of The Good Wife is as fully realized as The Sopranos’ New Jersey or The Wire’s Baltimore.
Even beyond the characters, plot threads are woven so thoroughly that landmines lay dormant for multiple seasons before blowing up and recontextualizing some of the series’ core dynamics. There is a ten-episode stretch in Season 5 of this show in which the show cashes 95% of the checks it has written up to that point, and it’s maybe the best that network television has ever been.
It may not compete with your love of The HBO Greats, but if you’re looking for a long-running show that you can just hang out with — A breezy 156 episodes not including it’s exceptional spin-off The Good Fight which follows esteemed lawyer Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) through the Trump era and beyond with surreal results — that accurately charts the past 15 years of law, justice, and life in America, give The Good Wife a chance. Throw it on while you’re doin’ somethin’ else, and before long it’ll have you under its spell. It’s on Paramount+ (I know, I know), but I promise you — if you make it to that stretch in Season 5, you’ll thank me.
P.S. If that sounds like a big commitment and you’ve not interested in giving a show a “few episodes” to find its footing check out the creator’s sister show Evil, which is essentially “X-Files but with demons” and has all of the plotting and casting and world-building that makes The Good Wife an all-time great. Its star, Katja Herbers, is currently giving the best TV performance since Carrie Coon in The Leftovers . Also on Paramount+, and you get caught up with the first two seasons if you time your 7-day trial out right.