Monday, March 31, 2014

My take on THE GOOD WIFE

A lot of you have asked my thoughts on the shocking story turn on THE GOOD WIFE. I waited a week so you DVR folks could catch up, but if you don’t know by now – they killed Will Gardner.

First, as a huge fan of the show, let me react personally. “NOOOOO!!!! HOW COULD THEY DO THAT?!! NOOOOOO!!!!! ANYONE BUT WILL!!!! Except maybe Alicia. Or Elsbeth. NOOOOOO!”

Okay. Had to get that out of my system. Now my professional opinion. “NOOOOOO!” Sorry. That just slipped out.

It’s very hard for a writing staff when creative decisions have to be made not based on the best dramatic storytelling but to accommodate some real life roadblock. Actors want to quit. Actors tragically die in real life. Actresses get pregnant. Actors get hospitalized. Snowstorms halt production. Strikes halt production. Actors have conflicts that must be dealt with.

Occasionally these lead to great stories or a terrific new direction that the showrunner would not have thought of otherwise. But more often than not these hurt the shows. When CBS forced us to get rid of the male lead on ALMOST PERFECT it effectively killed the series. The heart of the show was the romance and now that was gone. I think season two episodes were extremely clever and very funny, but they lacked the emotion and thematic clarity that season one had.

I’ve always admired Michelle & Robert King, the creators and showrunners of THE GOOD WIFE. They’re exceptional writers who consistently devise fresh, original stories and characters. I’m in awe of their talent. If there was one hour drama I wish I could write it's THE GOOD WIFE.  And I greatly appreciate that they’re willing to make bold story choices. Some work better than others, but they keep the show vibrant. The relationships are always changing, and it’s great fun to watch all the different permutations.

So when Josh Charles announced to them last year that he wanted to leave the show, they were left with an agonizing decision. They chose to kill him off. And somehow they managed to keep it a surprise. How they did that I’ll never know.

Anticipating a lot of viewer outrage, the Kings wrote an open letter to THE GOOD WIFE fans explaining why they opted for that decision. And their reasoning made perfect sense.

And knowing how artful they are, I’m sure the rest of the season’s episodes will deal with his demise in honest yet surprising ways (unlike say DOWNTON ABBEY that dealt with character deaths in the most on-the-nose ways possibly).  Last night's episode had some wonderful moments.

Still, I worry.

Not only was there such amazing chemistry between Alicia and Will, in the three episodes leading up to his death they ramped up that chemistry even more. Yes, it made the death more shocking and more of a loss, but there’s the real danger that it backfires, only pointing out how important Will was to the series, and will result in angry fans abandoning THE GOOD WIFE for good.

A lot of people won’t give a shit why the Kings felt this move was justified. They hate it and won’t come back. Period.

I also think so many series regulars have been killed now off of shows that audiences are frankly just tired of the devise. Hasn’t Rob Lowe been bumped off of multiple series?

THE GOOD WIFE in reruns will now play differently. There will be a sadness to watching earlier episodes. I don’t know whether that will make them less enjoyable or more poignant. Killing Will Gardner could be a very costly mistake. Time and ratings will tell.

So the Kings have taken a huge risk (only because their hands were forced). Can they rebound from this? If any writers can it’s Robert & Michelle. I strongly recommend you don’t give up on THE GOOD WIFE. Even if you’re furious or haven’t gotten out of bed in a week. Give them a chance. Yes, their backs are up against the wall. But isn’t that what makes for great drama?

I also look forward to whatever Josh Charles is in next.  He's a terrific actor.  

That said... "NOOOOO!"

UPDATE: The ratings for last night's episode went up.  And I expect when DVR viewing is figured in the number will rise even higher.  Stick with the show.  Trust me, you will be rewarded. 


Hamid said...

I've never watched The Good Wife but Josh Charles is brilliant. Loved him as the wonderfully named Knox Overstreet in Dead Poets Society, one of my all time favorite movies.

RockGolf said...

To emphasize something you mentioned in passing, how the hell in these days of instant media did we NOT get some indication this was going to happen months in advance?
Not a CBS promo rotating pictures of every character in the series saying "one of your favorite Good Wife characters is going to die". Not Blind Item on Not Josh Charles signing onto a new series. Nada.
Hell, even when the shooting started I couldn't figure out Will was going to be dead. No last memorable words. No foreshadowing. Death, just as abrupt and unexpected and seemingly random as in real life. Even more shocking than the death of Henry Blake on M*A*S*H, since in that case we at least knew the actor was leaving the series.
The only similar shock I can remember is the death of Sid Fairgate (Don Murray) on Knots Landing. His character's car went of a cliff in the season finale, and the next season he was in hospital rapidly recovering when 3 episodes into the next season, he took a quick turn for the worse and died in a single episode.

TV can make me feel a lot of things these days, but surprised is a rarity.

Stoney said...

Abyssinia Will!

Hamid said...

By the way, Ken, will you be posting anything on the passing of legendary screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr?

Mike said...

Relax, everyone! Will was only shot. It'll take a stake through the heart to kill him.

Karl said...

I think it has improved for writers and show runners from the days when networks were uncomfortable allowing sitcom characters to die. Prior to the 1970s, it was rare. When actress Jean Hagen left the Danny Thomas show in the mid-1950s, her character was allowed to die so Danny could become a widower and remarry a season later. Normally, though, sitcom characters just ceased to exist and were never referred to again. When Bea Benaderet died in 1968, Petticoat Junction creator and producer Paul Henning wanted to acknowledge that by having her character die on the series. CBS wouldn't allow it, so suddenly it was as if there had never been a Kate Bradley on Petticoat Junction. Can you imagine if NBC had refused to allow Coach to die on Cheers, and instead the character was simply gone and was never spoken of or referred to again?

Clavinator said...

I think it's safe to assume the writers of this show are smart enough to not pull a "Bobby Ewing".

Greek Donkey said...

When the show finally ends, which I hope will be more than a couple years from now, they should borrow from "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (the movie, not the TV show) to reunite Will and Alicia. Sure, it's corny, and they could do their own spin on it, but it would allow for a return of Josh Charles one last time.

RockGolf said...

@greekdonkey: "Medium" already did that. Kinda worked there with an established supernatural series, but not in a reality-based like this.

Igor said...

What were the alternatives...

> Within "the world" of this show?

> Within the pacing/tone/logic of this show's stories?

> Is there a way that the character could have decided to leave that would have fit and that would have been more "satisfying" to the fans?

> If you need a character to be gone by the act of some external force, what makes sense other than death or going to prison - and would his being in prison have really worked for these characters and the show?

IOW, what would/could have been a better way?

While I pose those question just in general...

Ken, as I read your post, I was expecting (in the context of your blog posts, overall) that you would offer some ideas as to how you might have handled it. Apparently - and this is not a complaint; in fact, I think it's rather impressive - perhaps you didn't offer your ideas on handling it because of your clear respect for Michelle & Robert King.

In any event, the show runners faced an immutable situation. It was "death" or something else.

blinky said...

Josh showed up on Olbermann to echo his role in Sports Night, which was a great show that nobody saw.
Why would anyone leave the Good Wife because they killed Will? There are so many great characters it is no big loss. Now Alicia can get it on with the Agos kid which would increase the 18-36 younger demographic. Cha-ching!

Anonymous said...

Agree with Blinky. There are so many great characters on this show and how they'll get room to expand. THE GOOD WIFE had become laden with Alicia/Will melodrama and this clears the deck for fresh character probing. And didn't folks say the same thing when McLean Stevenson was killed off in MASH? Or Jill Hennessey in LAW & ORDER?

Phillip B said...

I watched last night - the first time since seeing the first few episodes - drawn by curiosity about what they would do next.

The small scene, the firing of the bawling intern, was a really brilliant attempt to portray a complex emotion of grief. For me it was a "wow" moment.

I had stopped watching when it became too much a soap opera. Unless you totally identified with the main character there wasn't much else of interest. There wasn't the procedural hook of a working law firm.

I suspect they have put Alicia through so much that she can barely function as a plausible human being. And unless they can refresh her direction, they are almost done.

skarab said...

I think this was a brilliant stroke on the part of the writers. And last night's episode made it clear that they aren't just moving along to new stories and/or characters. A winding, twisty view of how each character responds to this shocking development. This is great TV and I'm looking forward to future developments!

John Corcoran, Jr. said...


I've been defending the kill-off scenario to others who screamed "nooooooo" too, citing the fact the Kings had their hand forced by reality, and that while there have been too many Murders-by-Plot-Twist to count on television, this may have been the best.

And then you inconsiderately, knowledgeably, and convincingly make me realize that I’m wrong. Last time I was wrong was 1966, when I called the Dodgers in six.

I had not taken into account the rerun factor you brought up. It introduces a financial jeopardy to all and sundry that may be impossible to overcome. Then too the chemistry you speak of reminds us just how harder it will be without the sexual and dramatic tension between Will and Alicia.

As a series chockablock full of arcs and storylines, I'm not sure it would have succeeded in non-appointment syndication, unlike, say, Law & Order. We'll never know what might have been had Will rode off into the sunset--with the occasional return tokeep the fires stoked..

Anyway, thanks for the insightful column. It has been a superb show over the years, and that kind of quality tends to breed more than mere loyalty, but a sense of proprietary interest with its fans. This isn’t a dramatic death to some, this is a death in the family.

Lastly, do you find it ironic that in Josh Charles terrific earlier series, SPORTS NIGHT, he was "abandoned" by Aaron Sorkin for Sokin's new love, THE WEST WING? Could Charles, wounded once before, have felt determined, perhaps subconsciously, to avoid such pain again? Maybe that's why he broke off this love affair off first?

Sharon said...

I've watched since Day One, and no matter what the twists and turns (and granted, Will's death was a huge twist) I wouldn't think of "giving up" The Good Wife. It's just too good of a series to abandon,no matter what happens.

I agree with those who say it was pretty wonderful that they kept this plot twist a secret for a year. When I saw the promo for this episode, I must say I did think "Are they going to kill off Chris Noth? How can they do that? Would she still be the good wife - or would she be the good widow?"

So yeah, you might say I was a bit surprised to see the one killed was Will. We have to give both the Kings and CBS a big nod for not ramping up that promo - they did it almost non-chalantly.

And now, we can move along and see where this story line takes us and I love that! I'll miss Josh, but he'll turn up elsewhere.

Speaking of Jill Hennessy, wonder what they are going to do with her joining Elsbeth as a partner?

See, more delicious story lines. The Kings have created and built one of the best network TV dramas in our TV history. At least as far as I'm concerned.

Sharon said...

This is the only time I've not been incensed that a character was killed off. Wait, I just remembered another -- RIP, Col. Henry Blake. Back on topic. Usually, it feels lazy, but not this time. I have every confidence that the Kings will continue to write the sh** out of this show. I'm not goin' anywhere!

Dave said...

I suppose they could do what FAMILY GUY did earlier this season. Make a major thing out of killing off a lead character, have him off the series for two or three weeks, then contrive a way to bring him back and proceed as if nothing had ever changed.

Read a couple of media columns that gushed about what a bold, brave, risky move FAMILY GUY had made. They must have felt like fools after it proved a fake-out.

RareWaves said...

I suppose they considered, but probably quickly rejected the idea of replacing the actor with another actor. It's been done in daytime soaps, but doesn't always work in primetime (people are still opinionated about the Darrin Stephens actor change). So, what are your thoughts on when it's a good idea to change actors versus eliminating the character?

Question Mark said...

It was probably easier for the show to keep Charles' departure under wraps because Good Wife doesn't generate much online buzz. Since it doesn't have a ton of appeal to the tweens/twentysomethings that fuel most entertainment message boards, Good Wife flies under the radar and avoids the kind of fevered speculation that Breaking Bad, True Detective, Mad Men, etc. receive.

This isn't a comment on Good Wife's quality, obviously, since it's a terrific show. It's just directly aimed at an older, less net-saavy audience so it's easier to keep spoilers hidden.

You're right that it's a minor miracle, however, that CBS was able to resist hinting at it during a promo.

Jennifer the Chaos Queen said...

I think they should have sent Will to jail, actually. It would have been really fitting to have Alicia have been in love with two jailbirds, adds to her conscience about which one to stick with when both are bad, etc.

Barry Traylor said...

Actually I thought this show was on the bubble for some time.

Anonymous said...

my problem with the show is how they're handling Alicia. She's .... DEPRESSING to watch. And as a general rule i'm trying to avoid "depressing" right before i go to bed.

Johnny Walker said...

Nobody did character deaths better than Buffy. A character's death is a great opportunity for incredible drama, but so often that opportunity is squandered. Either by having the characters get too depressed to be good company, or by skating over it like nothing happened.

Joss Whedon knew how milk it perfectly, though, so you felt all the pain and the catharsis (if that's the right way to describe it). Just like Henry's death on M*A*S*H. Painful and awful, but genuine and not gratuitous.

Jan Stanton said...

I love Elsbeth too! (I'm still too devastated about the death, to even talk about it.)

Michael said...

Speaking of the male lead on ALMOST PERFECT, he was a guest star on CASTLE last week. As soon as he appeared, I remembered him from ALMOST PERFECT - he is still looking almost 20 years later.

Anonymous said...

Loved this post - I was definitely waiting to hear your thoughts. I think right now this is one of the best show out there and as sad as I am to see Josh Charles leave there was no other way to end the Will and Alicia storyline. It made for fantastic tv and I never had any thoughts of giving up the show. I think between this and the associates starting their own firm this has been by far the best season. And I have enjoyed all of the other seasons so for me, that is saying a lot.

Michelle said...

I love the Good Wife, and how the Kings really push the story forward. And I have a question:

I have been reading a lot about "Quality TV" and how any shiny tv show is called that now. The acting is great, the directing and cinematography is great, the story itself is great, but the writing is not up to par (ex. arguably True Detective or House of Cards, compared to Breaking Bad). As a writer, how do you feel about these shows?

Roger Owen Green said...

If The Good Wife could survive that terrible storyline with Kalinda's husband, it can survive this.

Squareeyes said...

If column and web inches are anything to go by, killing the departing actor's character was a masterstroke. I do wonder if there's a little bit of "OK, chum, move on if you must, but don't expect to come back", in this. In the dreadful UK megasoap 'Eastenders', departing characters simply get in a taxi, spend a couple of years doing not much, then come back. Not that I watch it, no.

Mike said...

@Squareeyes: Eastenders has killed off 100 characters (over 30 years). In particular, Dirty Den twice.
One actor quit after being refused time off to appear in pantomime. His character was pushed off a cliff by his bride on their honeymoon. (Tough but fair.) Ten years later in Montanna ...

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I think two things:

1) I'm very grateful the show didn't betray its characters and their relationships by having Will suddenly decide to go teach children in Darfur or marry and move to another state. Killing him off lets us keep the chemjistry and romance he had with Alicia and the chemistry and wonderful partnership he had with Diane without feeling that after all, in the end, he didn't really give a damn.

2) In many ways I think this development will set the show free. As long as Will was alive, it would always have circled around the questin of whether Will and Alicia would get back together. Now, Alicia has a bomb to propel her into the next phase of her life (much as finding out about Kalinda and Peter did at the end of season 2). There are all sorts of interesting storylines opening out: Diane's new role as solo named partner; the politics of who tries to replace Will; how Alicia moves forward; and there may be dozens of things we dn't know about yet that Will set in motion that others will have to finish for him.

As a fan, though, like you, WAAAH!


tony said...

Ken, annoyingly, even though you decided not to say anything, a few days back one of your commenters mentioned Josh Charles leaving and how great it was that they'd kept it a secret - I had no idea and hadn't been able to watch the episode yet, so it spoiled it for me as soon as I saw the kid looking at the gun :-(

I really like the way they handled it; the imaginary scenes where Alicia is running through what Will was gonna say on the phone - that stuff is great; Joss Whedon did it spectacularly in Buffy when Buffy's mother died. Not many TV writers and producers can handle the internal crushing shock you go through when someone dies, but the Kings have done it brilliantly.

I was a bit puzzled by something - why did the intern get fired? Was it just cos she was crying so much yet hardly knew Will? As in, she was faking it? Or was it just a callous act that came out of the emotion of the moment?

Stuart Kirchherr said...

The episode this past Sunday (the first one after Will's death) was one of the most brutally honest portrayals of grief I've seen on commercial TV. Not one false, melodramatic note (except maybe Kalinda and the belt in jail scene). The episode was expertly written and performed. It exceeded my expectations (or should I say, it met my expectations given the high standard of the series).

That said, it felt like a completely different show. That may be true to life, as a death of a close person makes our lives completely different. In that respect, maybe the episode was too good -- it no longer served as escapist entertainment. It was like LA Law done by some European art-house director. I don't watch network TV to be reminded of how harrowing life can be.

On the other hand, moments like this are what make certain TV shows memorable. Hopefully they can regain that balance of drama and sly humor that marked the series.

A.J. said...

"THE GOOD WIFE in reruns will now play differently."

Since they killed off Gary on "thirtysomething," or Colonel Blake on "MASH," I've always thought this.

When you kill off a major character on a show by surprise, all you think when you watch the reruns is "Gary dies. Gary dies. Gary dies." And it changes everything.

An interesting example was Leo McGarry on "The West Wing."

John Spencer died young of a massive heart attack in real life, at an extremely critical point in the storyline.

What made it especially interesting was, in the 2 years leading up to his TV and real-life death, he had a massive heart attack on the show, and the characters talked about the possibility of his dying from another one, a lot. And then he did.