By the time most shows reach their sixth seasons, they’re beginning to run on fumes. The cast, which has renegotiated and extended their contracts at least once, is becoming preoccupied with outside projects, as well as their growing bank accounts. The same inertia and restlessness is setting in behind the scenes as well. As the original creators—if they are even still around —become focused on other shows, those late-season episodes feature characters and scenarios that feel comfortable, but are rarely surprising or inventive. Aside from rare exceptions like Breaking Bad, which was finally dismantling the house of cards it had so painstakingly constructed from the get-go, it’s rare for a long-running show to get creatively invigorated that far into its run.
That’s what makes The Good Wife’s marvelous sixth season premiere all the more remarkable. The CBS drama is doing anything but going through the motions during its return this Sunday (allegedly at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT, but as always, its actual start time is at the mercy of the NFL Gods). As Julianna Margulies and her castmates begin Season 6 (the same season, by the way, in which the actress exited ER back in 2000), they are continuing the creative resurgence that was fueled by Season 5’s twin bombshells: Alicia (Margulies) and Cary (Matt Czuchry) departing Lockhart/Gardner to start their own law firm, and the stunning death of Will Gardner (Josh Charles), who was gunned down in a courtroom.
Once again, the series zigs where one expects it to zag. Season 5 backburnered Alicia and Cary’s imminent Lockhart/Gardner exit, letting it simmer for several episodes until the shit hit the fan in, yes, last October’s “Hitting the Fan.” Here too, the two biggest threads from May’s finale—Eli Gold’s (Alan Cumming) impromptu suggestion that Alicia run for State’s Attorney and embattled Diane Lockhart’s (the fabulous Christine Baranski) proposal to leave the firm she co-founded to join Florrick/Agos (and help prop up that startup with her $38 million in client business)—are overshadowed by an unexpected twist. I won’t spoil it here, other than to say that it once again pushes the show in an exhilarating, innovative direction and has reverberations that will impact both other major storylines.
The episode picks up right where the Season 5 finale left off, with Eli asking Alicia to run for State’s Attorney. Alicia’s one-word reply (which is just the beginning of that storyline) is one of Margulies’ greatest line readings yet, and an immediate reminder of why she deservedly picked up another Emmy last month. Meanwhile, Diane starts laying the groundwork for her possible defection, announcing her “retirement” to Lockhart/Gardner partners David Lee (Zach Grenier) and Louis Canning (Michael J. Fox), telling them, “I want this to be a dignified exit.” Diane might be one of the majestic characters on TV, but that scenario clearly won’t be happening, given the actions of that scheming duo. Even in his limited screen time this episode, Fox is far more delightful here than at any point during last season’s ill-fated The Michael J. Fox Show.
There is also meaty material for Lockhart/Gardner investigator Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) and Cary, the two characters who have been most underserved during the show’s run. Panjabi actually won an Emmy after Season 1, but the character is still rehabilitating from Good Wife’s biggest blunder: the toxic Season 4 storyline with her ex-husband. Even Finn Polmar (Matthew Goode), the Assistant State’s Attorney introduced around the time of Will’s death last season, is finally getting a backbone this year.
So much is going on, in fact, that it wasn’t until much later that I realized that one character was never referenced, possibly for the first time: the late Will Gardner. Now it can be said: Josh Charles’ exit last March, as shocking and painful as it was, is probably the best thing that could have happened to The Good Wife in the long run, and one of the main reasons this show, and these characters we’ve spent five years with, suddenly seem so fresh.
Yes, Will Gardner is irreplaceable, and will forever be missed. But his death not only changed each character permanently, it also obliterated an albatross that had hobbled the show in recent years: the embers of Will and Alicia’s not-quite-extinguished romantic relationship. It hung over everything, for good (one of the best ripples of Alicia leaving Lockhart/Gardner last year was the emotional wounds it inflicted on Will) and—increasingly—for bad (enough with the flashbacks and longing looks!). And despite the fact that the promise of them as a couple was always far better than the reality of them pairing up, not even genius showrunners Robert and Michelle King would have been able to resist reuniting them later on. It’s just not possible for a long-running show to avoid that inevitable outcome. But that can never happen now, and The Good Wife is all the better for it. In many ways, it feels like a new show: At every turn, Alicia no longer has to deal on some level with her feelings for Will.
Another benefit to Will’s absence is that it allows the show to make even more frequent use of the best, and deepest, guest-star bench in television. Pretty much every character that returns on this show is a delight, including a few gems this episode: Eli’s brash daughter Marissa (Sarah Steele), drug kingpin Lemond Bishop (Mike Colter), one of Florrick/Agos’ most notorious clients, and an old flame of Kalinda’s, Sophia (Kelli Giddish).
That said, not everything that the Kings (who co-wrote the episode; Robert directs) touch turns to gold. They are stubbornly sticking with the show’s least interesting storyline, involving Lauren (Katie Paxton), an intern with her sights set on Governor Peter Florrick, Alicia’s husband (Chris Noth). I’m all for Peter falling prey to old temptations—an area that’s ripe for exploration—but a Monica Lewinsky clone seems a bridge too far, even for him. Especially given Alicia’s declaration that theirs is now a marriage of convenience only—and the realization that Peter needs her far more than she needs him—there’s nothing rewarding for the show down this path. The Kings need to cut bait on this immediately, before it reaches Kalinda’s-ex-husband levels of awfulness.
But that misstep is a minor blip in an otherwise stellar premiere. For several years now, The Good Wife has been the sole broadcast drama able to hold its own among the finest shows on TV, despite producing almost double the episodes of a cable show’s season (22 versus 13). That the show was snubbed for an Outstanding Drama Series nomination in favor of lesser series like Downton Abbey and House of Cards was one of this year’s biggest Emmy embarrassments.
How long can they sustain this momentum without falling victim to the same pitfalls as nearly every other long-running series? Who knows, so until that happens, let’s just enjoy every moment of this unparalleled run while we can. Sorry, everyone else—especially fellow network dramas—but The Good Wife has just raised the bar (or, given the title of Sunday’s premiere, “The Line”) yet again.