What makes the television legal drama series The Good Wife so …good? Lots of things, but it occurred to me one of the primary reasons each episode sizzles is on account of the restraint expressed by all the characters. In a landscape of entertainment characterized by lack of inhibition, this represssion and its consequences are refreshing. I also think it’s a more accurate depiction of the complexity of human relationships. It’s what the characters do not say and do not do which makes the suspense work. In this landmine, no one is free – old or young. Everyone has secrets and pasts. What information is known when and through whom as well as who knows who knows, becomes paramount.
Given this moody atmopshere, when something does actually happen, the viewer appreciates it so much more. A small kiss shared between Cary and Kalinda, while expected, is savored. Especially since the characters themselves do no make a deal of it afterward. The lines between personal and professional goals and motivations are often blurred. The series works on the strucutralist theory of binary opposition, embraced by Hegel, Levi-Strauss, and others. Binary opposition, simply defined, are a pair of concepts or terms opposite in meaning set up against each other.
This self-control and constant undercurrent of hesitation came to a peak in last week’s episode Foreign Affairs (4/12/2011). All of the things which are not told are brought to light in some fashion or another. Kalinda tells Will that he should tell Alicia that she’s an amazing woman because “People like to be told.” Investigator Andrew Wiley tells Alicia that his investigation uncovered a “Leela” (Kalinda) whom with which her husband Peter was rumored to have an affair. Cary has yet to reinvoke his romantic interest in Kalinda from the kiss a few episodes ago. Kalinda does not tell Alicia that she slept with Peter, and does not yet know that she knows. Natalie Flores reveals her feelings for Eli Gold by touching him momentarily on the arm and saying simply “If this were another time.”
In The Good Wife, as in real life, witholding information can be just as deadly as revealing it. Information which may have been harmless if only exposed and handled earlier in the timeline, become dangerous monsters. Needless to say, there is plenty of dramatic irony. But the real treat is that we as viewers journey along with the characters as they figure out their motivations, desires, and goals. We are with them as they make decisions, backtrack, and change their minds. We are with them as they suppress personal emotion for what they perceive to be the greater good, or allow personal ambition and secrecy to damage friendships. The show is extremely adept at introducing as well as handling baggage between characters. The layers are a complex, seeming abyss.
Ironically for a series structured aroung a beginning with a sexual scandal, The Good Wife shows almost Victorian restraint vis-a-vis the subject. Here we have the constant jostling of the supergo, ego, and id. What sets it apart from reality tv as well as its competitors such as Gray’s Anatomy, is the power of the superego, and how that can be personally and professionally just as self-destructive.