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Friday, 16 of April of 2021

The Good Wife – “Another Ham Sandwich”

The only problem is that he never fought the Jews. We’re Mossad, baby.”

The Good Wife Title Card s3Rather thankfully, this ham sandwich is better than last season’s. And while I have little quibbles, mainly with Wendy, the episode as a whole is a great success, paying off the season’s overreaching plot of the investigation into Will’s judicial conduct. I mean, any episode that ends with Will and Diane dancing together because they appear to be goddamn bullet-proof is pretty impressive, yeah?

So while I’m going to talk about the episode a bit, I’m also going to address other reviews of the episode, as “Another Ham Sandwich” has prompted a slight resurgence in the “The Good Wife is doing cable drama on broadcast!” idea that gets circulated every now and then, and annoys the hell out of me.

The episode, despite seeming to having a lot of going on, is actually fairly straight-forward, as Wendy convenes her grand jury in an effort to indict Will. While this sadly kept my beloved Elsbeth in the hallway and not squaring off against Wendy some more, it did allow for Will and Diane to both shine during their testimonies. From Diane’s chatty “I don’t play basketball” and organic mentions of Peter to Will’s jujitsu performance (“I have the e-mails right here…”), the episode lets both Christine Baranski (“She’s damn good in this show, isn’t she?” my viewing partner asked during Diane’s testimony) and Josh Charles strut their stuff.

And it likewise pays off the bond of cagey elusiveness that Will and Kalinda both share as their long con of Dana, and by extension Wendy, comes to fruition, even putting whip cream on the mulled wine and brandy by Will allowing himself to be photographed handing an envelope of cash to a judge, and all in the name of UNICEF (“I believe kids in Uganda should be immunized.”). The connection between Will and Kalinda, one that the show has so delicately played across three seasons (and even I sometimes ignore in favor of their respective relationships with Alicia), feels fully rewarded here. They’ve been playing a dangerous game, and they don’t even know that it’ll work, which makes it all the more exciting for us.

Alicia’s time on the stand likewise begins the ripple effect of her affair with Will. Yes, Peter (in a great moment for Noth) more or less admits that his investigation is based almost entirely because of Alicia and Will’s relationship, but there’s larger issues at play here. Not only is Peter using his office to settle personal scores, something that I imagine will come back to haunt him later, but that Alicia needs to fess up to her kids, and may have become public record is also one that  I find more interesting.

And I love how the show plays this. Alicia needs to tell her kids about this affair, but she doesn’t, and instead opts for a vacation (much like the show taking a three week hiatus). Alicia doesn’t explain why she doesn’t tell her kids to anyone, but we know, don’t we? She wants to maintain her image in her children’s eyes as well as not putting them in the position of picking sides between them. It’s pretty easy to side with Alicia when she’s been wronged by Peter, but how do the two kids reconcile that both their parents are adulterers now?

But then there’s Wendy, whose characterization seems be whatever the show needs her to be in a particular episode, which is frustrating and a tad unfair to both the character and the performer. We know there’s a viper under the sickly sweet and polite smile of hers, but this episode leaves her off-guard and scrambling to ever recover. The crafty intellect we’ve come to expect is unable to turn around the mentions of Peter from testimonies, and despite her claims of a “strategic move” in bringing in Alicia, it massively backfires, leaving me wondering why I ever compared her to Gus Fring from Breaking Bad.

And with the mention of Gus and Breaking Bad, let me turn to some other reviews. I’ve written about this issue of cable, broadcast, Quality TV, and The Good Wife before at a different venue (and even that is an adaptation of blog post I did here), but it’s resurfaced in a few reviews this week, and I need to address it a bit, just so the vein in my neck stop throbbing. (If you follow me on Twitter, you saw some of this.)

Reviewers for TIME, HitFix,  all mention and compare The Good Wife to cable programming in some way. Emphases are mine.

  • Louis Peitzman at (Full disclosure: I tweet back and forth with Louis every now and then) writes, “There’s no question in my mind at this point: The Good Wife is the best non-cable drama on television right now. No other show gives us such complex characters, challenging storylines, and rich interpersonal dynamics.”
  • Alan Sepinwall at HitFix argues that “…the Kings continue to do an excellent job of marrying cable style with network needs. It’s a complex (narratively and morally) show that rewards ongoing viewership, but it’s also one where you can miss a few episodes and not feel like you need to just give up and wait for the DVD.”
  • And James Poniewozik at TIME says “I don’t think there’s another drama on network TV right now that gives its viewers credit for as much intelligence.” and “The Good Wife does things, week in and week out, that network drama supposedly can’t do.” Poniewozik tweeted the review thusly: “Another Ham Sandwich” shows how THE GOOD WIFE manages to do cable drama on network TV.”

My problem with this sort of discourse is twofold. The first, which Poniewozik acknowledges but Peitzman and Speinwall do not, is this discussion of “cable drama” refers to a very specific set of cable dramas found on on HBO, Showtime, and to varying extents on AMC and FX. “Cable drama” becomes a shorthand for those particular series. This discourse helps obscure the fact that there are a range of other cable dramas that don’t qualify as “cable dramas”, like the programs shown by TNT, Syfy, ABC Family, A&E, and USA, among others. It helps paint the picture of cable as this paradise where drama and style ultimately matter more than “network needs”, which I think we can argue is not the case as the “cable dramas” serve a “channel branding need”, whether it be “Best Original Stories” to “It’s Not TV.”*

*This likewise glosses over the failures of “cable dramas”, like Rubicon or John from Cincinnati.

The second problem with this discourse is that, as Elena Levine pointed out to me, is that comparing The Good Wife to cable dramas helps legitimate the program: “It’s not like other network dramas! It’s better than them!” It helps distance the program from the primetime network shows that are don’t trust the audience to keep up or be comfortable with the moral shades of gray that “cable dramas” are known for (not to mention the various genres at play in the show, and its female lead), and instead associates it with a more highbrow television lineage, “narratively and morally” in Sepinwall’s words.

The latter is probably my larger issue as I feel this broadcast/cable divide is one that largely relies more on marketing and the legitimization of programming on cable that is ultimately rooted in denigrating broadcast programs. “There’s no moral complexity, swearing” etc. etc. etc. The pleasure we derive from The Good Wife are not less than what we  may derive from Justified or Pretty Little Liars or Game of Thrones simply because it’s on CBS or because the FCC has oversight on it. Good storytelling is good storytelling, no matter where it comes from. Isn’t it?

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