Early in the pilot episode of The Good Wife, Julianna Margulies’s Alicia Florrick, a first-year associate at the Chicago law firm Stern, Lockhart and Gardner, offers a pro-bono client some advice on holding herself together as she faces retrial and a media storm. The client is a second-grade teacher charged with murdering her husband. Alicia, who has returned to the law after more than a dozen years at home with her two children, feels in court at once rusty and inexperienced. On life in the spotlight, however, she’s something of an authority: six months ago her husband, Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), resigned as the state’s attorney of Cook County. “I’ve never abused my office,” he said at a press conference. “I’ve never traded lighter sentences for financial or sexual favors. At the same time, I need to atone for my personal failings… The money used in these transactions "—assignations with prostitutes—” was mine and mine alone.“ Alicia stood beside him in front of the cameras; moments later, in a corridor, she slapped him. Peter Florrick is now in jail, but there is talk of an appeal, and clips of his press conference play endlessly on television.
"Don’t turn on the TV,” Alicia instructs her client. “You like reading? I’m going to get you some books. Fiction is best.”
Well, yes, fiction often is. So is reading, even if you don’t happen to be leading the evening news. A controversial opinion, especially ever since TV, as Harper’s put it, “got good.” (Some TV, anyway. Let’s not forget how bad much of the rest of it is.) Intellectual and literary magazines that took a pass on even the best dramas and comedies of the 1980s and 1990s now devote attention to shows that may not be, we are advised, worth ours. After watching fifty-two episodes of Mad Men, Daniel Mendelsohn finds little to admire in it, and says so in a New York Review of Books essay that runs to some 4,000 words. Professors blog about ho-hum hours of serial television with the same analytical exuberance that jock sniffers bring to pre-season football. Novelists—some complaining of neglect, others disenchanted with the state of the novel, still others genuinely excited by what they’re seeing on TV—express envy of those who work in a “writers’ room” rather than in one of their own. In a 2005 essay titled “Gutless Fiction,” Kate Jennings, an Australian who has lived for more than a generation in New York, puts into print what many mutter to themselves: “If I were starting over as a writer, I’d head for one of the good television cable companies, HBO or Showtime.”
But if television and magazines and even some writers have changed, what isn’t at all different is the way I feel in front of a screen. No matter how fine the show, watching it turns me into a dumpling. Put me on a treadmill or a rowing machine while I watch: I’ll feel no better. (I speak from experience.) I do not feel this way with a book, even if my feet go to sleep and I’m ready, when I’m done reading, for a trampoline. Go ahead and insist that these bodily differences are all in my head. They are. “As James noted, the maker of aural culture brings to his medium a ‘maximum of refinement'—i.e., he does the best he can with what he has to work with; sometimes he is even Shakespeare,” Cynthia Ozick writes. “But the job of sitting in a theater or in a movie house or at home in front of a television is not so reciprocally complex as the wheels-within-wheels job of reading almost anything at all (including the comics).”
Not long ago, in a memoir by Isabel Gillies about moving back in with her parents after being left by her husband, I was struck by an aside about children and television. Now, kids’ TV—some of it, anyway—got good decades ago, and for that we must thank Sesame Street‘s creators and Fred Rogers, among others. (For a reminder of the gentle magic of Rogers, I recommend a YouTube clip from 1969 in which he appears before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications to plead for the continued funding of public television. “I’ve got goosebumps,” Senator John Pastore tells him.) And yet for Gillies’ father, the quality of what his grandsons watch seems somehow immaterial. “I didn’t know where the kids were,” she writes of an afternoon when she was preoccupied with the problem of how to pay for nursery school.
Watching TV? I admit that I did put them in front of the TV while doing things such as opening bills, taking a shower, or returning a phone call. I felt shy about doing it in front of my father. I don’t think he views TV and kids as a very good mix. Whenever I put them in front of the boob tube, as he calls it, he would subtly get up from whatever he was doing and go sit with them … scooping them closer to him and propping them out of that television slump. ‘Wallace, why do you think that crazy cat climbed all the way up there? James, look at all those colors, which ones do you like?’
“Linda, why do you think you’re a capitalist tool?,” Mr. Gillies could have asked the pre-school me when I took to saying, after TV and before Christmas, “I want Baby Alive, by Kenner”; “I want Baby Tender Love, by Mattel”; “I want a Big Wheel, by Marx.”
Does TV induce passivity only in developing minds, or in all humans, even those earnestly applying themselves to college courses in “reading” television? An old question, but one that is newly relevant at a time when bingewatching has entered the lexicon. In Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook, Clive James notes that former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer “calmed himself down” after his ousting with more than a hundred episodes of The Good Wife. I’ll bet Ballmer did. James himself, while working on his book, watched at least four episodes of The Good Wife every Sunday. None too attentively, it seems: he calls a character who figured prominently in nine episodes by the name of another who appeared briefly in two.
Given my concerns about TV—my bias, if you want to go that far—how and why did I end up parked for several years in front of The Good Wife? In the summer of 2006, three years before the show’s premiere, some former students of mine who were living together off campus acquired a free television from Craigslist for the express purpose of watching the World Cup. Moving the TV at some point, they damaged it so that it was no longer cable-ready. The set did still work for DVDs. “I’ll take it,” I said. I was then in my mid-thirties and had never purchased a TV of my own. But I was willing to buy a DVD player so as to enjoy, responsibly and in moderation, movies. Long ago I took a freshman seminar called “The Film Medium,” but it only exacerbated my wholly old-fashioned view of cinema, one that I apparently share with Lynne Sharon Schwartz. “Films … are an art form,” she writes in Ruined by Reading, “but in my heart a movie is still a movie, an entertainment, a voyage in the dark, a plush seat, a bag of popcorn, Technicolor, air-conditioning, the most luscious of escapes. I do not ask that it feed my soul, only my fancy. When it does feed my soul—more often than I expect—I am surprised and grateful.” My battered couch and a 21-inch Zenith would make for a considerably less luscious escape. On the other hand, if I watched a TV show—for TV was increasingly available on DVD at the library—I would eat up just a smidgen of my evening.
Or so I thought on the night in 2012 when I checked out (literally) season one, disc one, of The Good Wife. All I knew about the show, besides the fact that Julianna Margulies was on buses all over Manhattan whenever I visited, was what I read on the back of the DVD: _After her high-profile husband’s political and sex scandal, Alicia takes the reins of her family and her life. While raising two teens, she pursues her original career as a defense attorney… . [Her] litigation skills are put to the test as she re-enters the courtroom after thirteen years and faces cutthroat 20-something rivals. Promising, I thought. Many of the wronged women we’ve seen stand by their shabby husbands—at press conferences, or permanently—are, or once were, lawyers. But what drew me to the show was that I guessed it unlikely to demand too much of me at a time when my workday was over and my reading had yet to begin. I have never been able to abide detective fiction, but I suppose I sought some of its tidy satisfactions.
“It’s not a good show,” a colleague informed me once I was hooked, clearly unaware that all I wanted from The Good Wife was an aperitif, or, on my longest days, a nightcap. Many critics declared it a superb show, but their praise usually struck me as rather pumped up. In The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman began an appreciation of the series with a discussion of Henry James’s “loose-baggy-monster problem”; War and Peace faced it, and so did The Good Wife! Ultimately, though, Rothman decided that the show resembled no literary work more than The Trial: “In both stories, the theory is that there’s an ultimate court of law, a higher, final, moral court, in which we’d all be found guilty if all the evidence were put before the judge.” Be that as it may, I can’t care too deeply about the comparison unless it’s also true that the Kings—Michelle and Robert, creators of The Good Wife—closely resemble Kafka.
In 2012, also in The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum called The Good Wife “the first great series about technology.” Had I read that blurb on the DVD, I wouldn’t have started watching; were the assessment accurate, I wouldn’t have continued. Many of The Good Wife‘s cases of the week revolved around or touched on technology issues, and many did not, but the show was about its characters. Two years later, Nussbaum made an even bolder claim: “In 2009, the show might have looked much like an empowerment procedural for the ladies, a 'Lean In’ fairy tale about a strong woman who would find her way. Instead, it’s revealed itself to be a sneaky condemnation of pretty much every institution under capitalism. Marriage is one of those institutions, of course. And so is television.” Why, one wonders, “for the ladies”? Because it starred one? As for marriage, it’s true that the show has little use for it. In the show’s first season, Peter and Alicia Florrick are estranged, and just about every significant character—Diane Lockhart, Will Gardner, Cary Agos, Kalinda Sharma, Eli Gold, David Lee, Elsbeth Tascioni, Jackie Florrick (Peter’s mother)—is single. In the fifth season, Diane marries, but we learn that she and her husband don’t live together. In the final episode of the series, Jackie is engaged to a fool, Diane’s marriage seems to be in trouble, and the Florricks are divorcing; everyone else remains single. Yet the show certainly can’t be seen as a condemnation of, say, getting and spending under capitalism. Will Gardner was killed off in 2014 when the actor who played him, Josh Charles, left the show, but as of this writing his Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams couch is still something we can “buy now” for $5,830 at cbsstore.com. With the $10,000 she was allotted for the decoration of her new office in season five, Alicia Florrick could get that couch, a chair like Kalinda’s ($3,200), and a few pillows ($190 a pop). No desk, alas.
I won’t deny that I took a simpleminded delight in the look of the show. What I loved about The Good Wife, though, was its devotion to revealing all sides of the characters as well as all sides of the issues; the acting; the screwball touches within the reliable procedural format; and above all the richness of each 45-minute episode. The show often felt as twisty, full, and unhurried as a film. Those with wider experience of television might say that, given my taste, I could have enjoyed a dozen other brightly written, well-acted programs about sharp-witted people with absorbing work. Maybe so; I’ll never know. (The most acclaimed shows of recent years require and surely deserve a commitment I’m not ready to make. Mad Men, which I did try, was a disappointment.) But I doubt that many other shows have been so on the side of adulthood and a certain kind of seasoned intelligence. There are countless English novels for grown-ups—no, Virginia, Middlemarch is not one of only a few—and countless non-English ones, but relatively little light contemporary entertainment. The Good Wife not only celebrates ripeness, it is consistently hard on adolescents of a certain age. “How old are you?” Will Gardner says during the deposition of a bratty Internet entrepreneur. Fifty, Gardner is told. “Don’t you think it’s a little old to be wearing a hoodie?” One Graham Shickel can’t help referring to himself as the youngest justice on the bench in the state of Illinois. The second time he does so in court, the daffy and shrewd lawyer Elsbeth Tascioni interrupts: “Yes, your honor, we’re all in awe.” In the final season, the Florricks’ son, Zach, announces that he is moving to Paris with his fiancée, where he will write a memoir. (“Fancy,” Richard Howard has written, “the retrospective gaze or glare at twenty-five.”) Zach is only a freshman at Georgetown and perhaps deserves a parental pass, but Alicia tells him it’s the stupidest thing he’s said in a while. When Zach protests—"I’m in a memoir class!“—she guffaws. Not what’s nowadays called "good parenting.” This viewer felt a brief countercultural thrill.
Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), the show’s best-drawn and possibly best-loved character—she returned this year in a spin-off, The Good Fight—is at the top of her game and sixtyish. Much is made of her savvy, skill, and experience, very little of her age. Common in life, less common on TV. Diane has a compassionate heart, a cool head, great natural poise, and one of the world’s loveliest laughs. After finding herself stirred by a cool-headed middle-aged ballistics expert who leans as far right as she leans left, she chides him not only for his views but for his monosyllables. “This silently stoic thing,” she ventures. “That’s all just a pose, right? When you get home you start spouting Proust?” Yep, he says. Yep, she says. And then: “Well, to cowboys. Who knew I loved cowboys. Maybe it’s in our DNA. Part of being American.” You don’t need to talk like that, he tells her. She gives him a raised eyebrow and her dazzling smile: “I do need to talk like that because that’s how I talk.” I can imagine a number of the show’s self-possessed guest star lawyers and judges—Bebe Neuwirth, Jane Alexander, Kate Burton, Linda Emond, David Paymer—saying much the same thing on a date. Paymer, from the bench, once gave a witness a little tutorial in talking. “Does ‘nuh-uh’ mean ‘no’?” he asked. The witness nodded. “Then say no.” Which didn’t stop another witness from trying out “yuh-uh.”
Perhaps I too quickly dismissed the role of technology on The Good Wife, for it’s worth noting that while the show has been praised for its with-it legal cases, it could also be praised for its indifference to the dernier cri in devices. Many of the show’s major characters are openly unenthralled by the latest tools of their own and other trades. Investigator Kalinda Sharma, by far the technologically hippest of the bunch, takes all of her notes in a small orange sketchbook. Hackers, you know. Diane, for most of the series, doesn’t even have a computer on her desk; in season six, when she does have a laptop, she clicks on what is obviously malware, with disastrous consequences for her firm. Idiotic as this is, it is never made to seem proof of some general idiocy. Neither is Alicia’s ignorance (“I need all my company contacts and files saved from the company cloud to my cloud, my personal cloud,” she tells Zach during an emergency, who replies, “You have no idea what any of those words mean, do you?”), or Elsbeth’s ineptitude (“My son keeps buying me new [laptops], and then backing away and laughing”). All of these women, the show makes clear, know other things, things very much worth knowing. “I want to learn from you,” Alicia tells Elsbeth after the latter has taken on and defeated the Treasury Department. My intention here is not to denigrate the heroes of the computer help desk, only to point out that The Good Wife has a refreshing offhand respect for those who are close readers of both people and the written word, and for that which might be learned from literature and history. Alicia’s apartment walls are lined with books, and Diane, we know, reads something other than cases. Discussing her faults with her husband, she admits to being easily charmed by “men who can discuss Tolstoy…. In the middle of the night when I review my day, I know that if a man has quoted Tolstoy to me, I would be more likely to cut him a break.” A clunker of a line—by the end of its run, the show was nearly unwatchable—but if you’re familiar with Diane, plausible. I’ve often wished I could bring her along to my college’s curriculum squabbles. She would put on her glasses, apply herself to some inspired eduspeak—A technology literate student is able to use effectively appropriate tools to acquire, manage, evaluate, create, and or communicate information, knowledge, or works of art—and raise her hand: “Such as books?”
In the penultimate season of The Good Wife, when the show was already in decline, Emily Nussbaum wrote that the series was “a model of how strict boundaries—the sort that govern sonnets—can inspire greater brilliance than absolute freedom can.” No need to bring up sonnets, but since she did, I’ll defend the show’s writers by saying that, beginning midway through season four, they faced a too-strict edict: Julianna Margulies and Archie Panjabi, who played Kalinda, could no longer appear in the same scene, or even in the same frame. Who decided this? All evidence points to Margulies, who in 2011 became a producer of The Good Wife. In one of Panjabi’s final scenes before she left the show at the end of season six, Alicia and Kalinda appear together, courtesy of computer-generated imagery, for the first time in some 50 episodes. Asked about this scene, and viewers who felt duped by it, Michelle King said, “We’re making the show every day using tricks, like if you’re in a car and there’s green screen and it looks like Chicago out the window but that’s not exactly where we are.” Robert King offered another example: “Josh [Charles] wasn’t really killed. We faked those gunshots. We fake everything in the show….” Margulies’s explanation was just as condescending, and less coherent: “It’s a shame,” she said at the 2015 New Yorker Festival, “because I wonder if it was two men, when one finds out that he fucked his best friend’s wife, if it would get that same attention, you know what I mean?” I don’t, because although Alicia found out in season two that Kalinda had slept with Peter Florrick, by season four the two characters were again sharing drinks. In seasons five and six, they spoke regularly and cordially, though only by phone. “You also have to remember,” Margulies added, “there’s difficulty… [Panjabi] was also doing another show, called The Fall.” Panjabi tweeted her response: “@TheFallTV was not even in production at that time and I was in New York ready to film the scene!”
We saw less of Alicia with Diane Lockhart and Cary Agos, too, and what had been a splendid ensemble show was increasingly Margulies’s alone. There were other problems, no less significant: the show began to lose track of its own tone, plots, and characters. Political consultant Eli Gold (the marvelous Alan Cumming), once described by Katha Pollitt as “deft, gentlemanly, discreet,” became a one-note bumbler. (Though when Eli barked at Peter Florrick, You were banging your ethics coordinator—your freaking ethics coordinator, I suspect that this was one of The Good Wife‘s goofs, not Eli’s. Peter, who was governor of Illinois in the final two seasons, had been banging his legal consultant.) Alicia, always watchful and cautious, took up with a smirking investigator she had been warned was a sociopath. “Don’t get up,” she tells him after their third go-round in one night. “I want to picture you in my bed. All day. Just eating bonbons, watching daytime TV.” Neither of them seemed aware of what a peculiar sight he was in her bedroom, though I suppose the cool palette of his tattoos went well enough with her Benjamin Moore “Beach Glass” walls. Their bad dialogue about good sex made for painful viewing, only a little less excruciating than if Diane Lockhart had gone home with a juice bar barista named Journey.
In Sigrid Nunez’s novel Naked Sleeper, the protagonist’s mother, Rosalind, eschews TV, “and like a lot of people who don’t watch television, she couldn’t resist throwing this up to others. She was forever quoting Frank Lloyd Wright’s definition: chewing gum for the eyes. She’d had a television long ago, but after it broke and she never got around to having it fixed, she realized that she didn’t miss it.” Nunez was once my teacher—a tough one, whom I liked a lot—and when I read that passage, I froze. If Nunez knew my TV history, would she think me a Rosalind? The set I had for a decade broke last year. I haven’t got around to replacing it, and I realize that I don’t miss it. True, one needn’t have a television to watch it, but I spend too much time as it is in front of my computer. I had intended to stream the well-reviewed pilot of The Good Fight on cbs.com, but when I discovered that the network was charging for every single episode, I decided to forget it. I’d rather read. As haughty as that preference seems to many, I came by it honestly, gradually, and after a “normal” youth. My parents were strict and sensible—I was not allowed to turn on the TV without their permission, which got me made fun of by my friends—but I nonetheless managed to log a lifetime’s worth of hours in front of the set. Asked, at age six, for an original composition about my schedule, I produced the following: “On Sunday I go to church. On Monday I watch T.V. On Tuesday I have Art! On Wednesday I watch the Bionic Woman! On Thursday I have Jym! On Friday I watch Sara! On Saurday I stay home and play! How meany days of the week are thar? 7!”
Though I plan to watch no more shows, I’ll probably keep an eye, without exactly meaning to, on what is written about television. As TV gains in prestige and shows become permanently available, will references to them cease to go almost instantly stale? In his 1997 essay “The Test of Time,” William Gass wrote, “It may be true that Hamlet will outlast Hill Street Blues, and therefore amass more pleasure credits… .” When Gass included the essay in a 2002 book, he brought the sentence up to date with the cop show of the moment: NYPD Blue. If only that were enough to stop students born in the late twentieth century—some of the most passionate defenders of TV—from snickering. Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook, the cover of which features a DVD case containing Game of Thrones, Band of Brothers, The West Wing, and The Sopranos, already looks perfect for a tag sale. Another question: will critics continue to make the case for TV by comparing it to literature, or will some begin to do the opposite? Actually, almost two decades ago Vijay Seshadri declared it “a fact that our most accomplished poets can be at least as entertaining as a good Seinfeld episode,” but he doesn’t seem to have started a trend.
You have to ask yourself if you want to write great literature or great television, Russell Banks said to Ann Patchett when he taught her at Sarah Lawrence. He was telling her not to be shallow. Most of my colleagues and most of our students would surely claim that the line dates Banks. I still like it; I still think the most gifted novelists are drawn to literature. But for those who aspire only to make television, William Deresiewicz has some indirect advice: the best preparation for creating TV, he suggests in Harper’s, is watching it. I say second best, and I urge the showrunners of the future to first steep themselves in the humanities of yesteryear. This is sometimes obvious: to make a Victorian drama, you study the Victorian novel. But do those who wish to make off-the-news satire begin with Aristophanes? They should. To make a series about business, on the other hand, read Trollope, Zola, Dreiser. And to make a worthy successor to The Good Wife, try any or all of the above, and don’t forget Shakespeare and the Bible. (In season two, Alicia Florrick, an atheist, hands her suddenly religious daughter a leather-bound Bible: “I thought if you were going to be serious about this, you ought to read up.”) I can’t say what Michelle and Robert King have read, or even whether they would agree with me. But I know their characters would. And for that, I extend my thanks.