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The Good Wife dealt with the Ferguson protests in its worst episode in years

Alicia (Julianna Margulies) argues with Frank (David Hyde Pierce) backstage at the debate.
Alicia (Julianna Margulies) argues with Frank (David Hyde Pierce) backstage at the debate.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The Good Wife, CBS's normally smart, self-aware legal drama, stepped in it last night with "The Debate," one of the worst, most overwrought episodes the program has ever aired. And this is a show that devoted much of the first half of its fourth season to a famously bad, go-nowhere plot about the return of a character's ex-husband, filled with faux sexy danger.

The episode wasn't just a mess. It was also a reminder of the sheer danger of "ripped from the headlines" stories and how easy it is to have such a thing blow up in a show's face. It also suggested, inadvertently, why fewer and fewer shows engage in this kind of story, especially when it comes to hot button political and social issues.

So what happened in "The Debate"?

The episode went off the rails from shot one, which featured on-screen text.


Yes, this was The Good Wife attempting to grapple with the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in an episode produced before the grand jury verdicts declining to send the killers of Ferguson's Michael Brown and New York's Eric Garner to trial were issued. As such, the onscreen text describing the circumstances of the episode's production feel like frantic ass-covering.

The main problem here is that the show's riff on these situations is relegated to the episode's C-plot, meaning it essentially functions as a distraction in the lives of the main characters. (We'll get into possibly satirical meanings for this in a bit.) In the series, a black man named Cole Willis is shot by a police officer in a mall. The grand jury declines to go forward with a trial, and massive protests are sparked. This is described, by several characters, as teetering on the edge of being "another Ferguson."

Yet the story of Cole is primarily treated as something to be navigated around by the show's regular characters, mostly white. Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) must figure out a way to sound tough on crime but sympathetic to the dead man's legacy in a political debate. Her estranged husband and Illinois governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth) is persuaded to see quelling the protests as a potentially defining moment for his legacy. And political strategist Eli Gold (Alan Cumming) mostly complains about black people. (Eli is often amoral when it comes to these matters, viewing voters as large, manipulable blocs, and we're not meant to sympathize with his views.)

Thus, Cole becomes not the focus of a storyline, but a thing to be talked about and argued over and lectured upon. The writers of this show are smart enough to have some clever bits here and there about how deep and intractable problems with police violence are, but they're also trapped in a vicious cycle where they have trouble viewing Alicia as anything other than a conquering hero, which ultimately sinks the whole enterprise.

What else was going on?

I already mentioned Alicia's debate against Frank Prady (David Hyde Pierce), the man against whom she's running for state's attorney, which takes up the majority of the episode.

There's some fun material about Alicia trying to navigate the intentionally discombobulating rules of the debate, and about her advisers' frequently contradictory advice. But the storyline is also a rather rote triumph over adversity narrative, which means that it's largely about Alicia figuring out how to operate within the new political system she's operating in.

The other major story involved Alicia's firm — as represented by Diane (Christine Baranski) and Cary (Matt Czuchry) — trying to deal with a devastating business setback by roping former associate David Lee (Zach Grenier) into their firm. Walking into her office to see David, the face of everything she'd tried to leave in starting her own firm, set Alicia off, and she had a knockdown fight with Diane and Cary that's been needing to happen since episode three or four, but was clumsily stitched onto the end of episode 12.

So all of this is to say that even without the Ferguson stuff, this episode could have easily been overstuffed (much as this season in general has been). But the clumsy deployment and unfortunate timing of the "another Ferguson!" material made the episode that much worse.

So what was so bad about that material?

The Good Wife

Peter (Chris Noth) attempts to figure out how to quell the protests. (CBS)

The Good Wife is a show about some of the most affluent, privileged people on Earth, and it's about how hard it can be for one person — particularly a woman — to define herself within those systems of power. But that also means that whenever the show tries to tackle questions of race, it filters almost all of them through the sensibilities of white characters. This means that the show's riff on Ferguson was primarily about people whose lives were only tangentially affected by the protests.

To its credit, the show understands this. There's a terrific scene where Alicia and Frank are arguing about the root causes of racism and economic inequality, backstage at the debate. (It's been put on hold while the grand jury verdict is announced.) A black man, sitting off to the side, speaks up, chastising the two for attempting to speak for black people, when they're ultimately just two rich, white people who can't possibly understand what life is like for him. Both Alicia and Frank dive in with variations on, "But that's why you should vote for me!"

It's some nicely cutting satire about how easy it is for people who aren't directly affected by racism to come to think of it in mostly symbolic terms, even though others have to deal with it every day. It's easier to imagine it as a problem in theory, something that can be solved on a root causes level but not an ongoing, daily concern.

If The Good Wife had stuck to this skewering of its characters' obliviousness, it probably would have been fine. Yes, what the man says to Alicia and Frank is heavy-handed, but that's sometimes what you need to make satirical material play. Neither candidate is a particularly good person in this moment, treating a real tragedy in the lives of several people as an excuse to play games of political oneupmanship.

The problems come when all of this hooks up with the rest of the story, which involves Alicia figuring out how to be a great debater. In essence, learning how to best talk about complicated racial issues in a way that will win her votes ends up being a part of Alicia's hero's journey, and the episode slowly builds to scenes where Alicia is lecturing an audience — mostly of black people — about the unfortunate realities of American society.

It stops being about how sheltered Alicia is and becomes entirely about how she can overcome adversity. And it's not clear if the show's writers can view her any longer with the kind of nuance necessary to understand that she can be an outright terrible person from time to time. That also means the Ferguson material becomes all the more troubling.

What about the show's politics?

The Good Wife has always prided itself on wrestling with the truly knotty questions of the American body politic, as well as with the way that politicians and lawyers often give in to opportunism. It can be a craven, cynical view of the world, but seeing it through the point-of-view of Alicia makes it more palatable.

It's simply unable to do that with the Cole Willis material, though Lord knows it tries. The chief problem is that the show's characters already view the initial spate of Ferguson protests from last August to have been "riots," a term that gets thrown around a lot over the course of this episode. And while it's entirely possible that these characters would see the protests as riots, it has the inadvertent effect of creating the sense that the show does, too. There are attempts to deal with, say, how having cops in riot gear present at a protest can turn it into a riot, but they're mostly academic.

Critic Laura Hudson wrote a great article about the inherent conservatism of Blue Bloods, a CBS series that essentially suggests the police can do no wrong. That piece points to something that bedevils this episode as well — almost all network television has to suggest the institutions we live within are just fine.

The Good Wife is supposed to be different. It's supposed to at least acknowledge that much of society is constructed out of rotting wood. But the thing I find most offensive about this storyline is the way that it suggests that situations like Ferguson could be easily solved if politicians (in this case Peter) gathered the right community spokespeople and then gave speeches filled with healing words. It's a very Hollywood writer view of deep scars running through the American psyche, and it tries to put a bandage on a wound that won't be so easily healed.

Put another way, it would be highly unusual for The Good Wife to return to Cole Willis after this episode. The characters most affected by him aren't series regulars, and Alicia and company would have no real reason to consider these questions without that sort of prompting. A very real, very pressing problem in our reality has become, effectively, a case of the week.

So should I freak out about the show turning awful?

The Good Wife

Alicia's fight with Cary (Matt Czuchry) and Diane (Christine Baranski) doesn't make a lot of sense. (CBS)

Nah. Some of the greatest shows in TV history have been guilty of TV episodes as bad as this one — or even worse. And as mentioned The Good Wife has turned out its share of clunkers before. The worst thing about this episode — the self-contained nature of the Ferguson material — is also what will be most likely to keep it from affecting the rest of the show.

No, the real problem in this episode as it pertains to the series is in that final scene, where Alicia has her fight with Diane and Cary. Increasingly in this season, The Good Wife seems to be leaning on the idea of Alicia as a buzzword, as a character who's bought into her own hype. When she accuses her fellow partners in the firm of treating her as they are and asking her pointed questions because she's a woman, it reeks of the show dropping in a confrontation with sexism because that's safe ground. Having Alicia go up against the antifeminist forces of the universe is something this show knows how to do well, and it occasionally feels like the writers desperately long to return to those safe shores again.

There's no real good reason to have Alicia take this fight to Diane and Cary — even if she earnestly believes them to hold sexist attitudes against her — in quite this way, other than the fact that it will make for a big cliffhanger of a moment.

That's season six's problem in a nutshell. After the explosive excitement of season five, when the show piled memorable moment on top of memorable moment, it has added even more complication and convolution to this set of episodes. That's mostly succeeded in unbalancing the story, so the writers head off toward the next explosive moment, in hopes that the high will be as potent as it was in season five. But there's no real way to get back there, and the story is suffering for it.

The Good Wife needs to stop chasing the big moment and get back to solid, fundamental storytelling.

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