By Kevin Burton Smith
No, CBS’ The Good Wife is not a private-eye show.
One of the 2009-10 television season’s most acclaimed new dramas, it’s really more of a legal thriller, closer in format to, say, LA Law. Created by husband-and-wife-team Michelle and Robert King, The Good Wife stars Julianna Margulies (formerly of ER) as Alicia Florric, the feisty, principled wife of Peter, a prominent state’s attorney (Chris Noth), and the mother of two, who stands by her man when he’s arrested and sent to the slammer amidst charges of corruption and a sex scandal.
Humiliated, middle-aged, and the focus of unwanted media scrutiny, Alicia has the steely resolve to take the high road as she throws herself back into the workforce as a single mom/junior defense attorney at a high-priced Chicago law firm; her determination is almost inspiring. And it’s that dramatic and unexpected moral underpinning that helps raise this show high above most TV legal potboilers.
The real charm of the show, though, lies in its twisty, turny tumble of hidden agendas, lies, and conspiracies. Just when you have a character, a plot, a motive pinned down, the writers yank the rug out. Everyone, it seems, has something to hide. The show’s a tsunami of secrets.
There is also—refreshingly—little black and white on display here, just endless variations of he said/she said, making this one of the few lawyer show that goes beyond mere legal sleight of hand and simplistic fingerpointing to actually explore the true human cost and the vast gray areas of the legal system.
And nobody has more secrets—or prowls those gray areas better—than Kalinda Sharma, the firm’s savvy, leather-wrapped private investigator. For my money, she ‘s not just the most interesting character on the show—she may just be the best private eye on American television these days. And the best in a long time.
Despite her thoroughly modern modus operandi (which involves data-bank surfing, computer hacking, and cellphone tapping) and the fact she’s a women (never mind one of East Indian descent, a true rarity on American television), Kalinda is in many ways a throwback to the genre’s roots.
As played by Archie Panjabi (Bend It like Beckham), Kalinda presents a tightly wound professionalism rarely seen in the genre these days, never mind on mainstream television. The leather she sports is not the shimmery, skin-clinging stuff of adolescent centerfold fantasy—rather, she wears leather it like armor to keep the world at bay.
Her antecedents aren’t amiable, good-looking guys like Jim Rockford or Thomas Magnum, cuddly losers like Monk, glib goofballs like the guys on Psych or jiggly Angels—nope, her roots go back much further, back to a time when private eyes weren’t automatically expected to be likable. Back to the very roots of the genre, the pages of the hard-boiled pulps of the 1920s, when hard-bitten gumshoes like Carroll John Daly’s Race Williams boasted in the pages of Black Mask, “I ain’t afraid of nothing . . . providing there’s enough jack in it.”
And that’s the sort of sang froid Kalinda has in spades. Professionally she’s not just cold—she’s Dashiell Hammett-cold. Hard and tough as a pair of brass knuckles. Hell, the way she dispassionately works her cases, facing down her enemies without flinching and standing up to violence, she could be The Continental Op’s illegitimate daughter.
But she’s no one-note character, either.
A shrewd and clever investigator who’ll do whatever and go wherever it takes (from dumpster diving to infiltrating high school locker rooms) to get what she wants, she’s a breath of fresh air and surprising complexity in a television landscape that too often treats even major characters as shallow stick figures whose entire character is delineated before the first commercial break.
The more we’re told about Kalinda, it turns out, the less we actually know. Like much of the show, it’s not just her loyalty, ethics, allegiances, and motives that are ultimately shaded in ambivalence—her personal life is also somewhere in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” area.
Is she a dispassionate hardass who only lives for the job? An anything-goes party girl? Is she a lesbian? Bisexual? Straight as a crooked arrow? Asexual? A femme fatale more than willing to use sex as a weapon?
It’s hard to tell.
But it’s that frostiness, coupled with the murkiness of her background and her hard-boiled professionalism, that keep me coming back.
In the first season, for which Panjabi won a well-deserved Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series, we learned that she used to work for Peter, Alicia’s husband, and now she seems to be willing to sell him out to his political enemies. Or is she?
It’s in the second season, however, that Kalinda has really came into her own, even as the veneer of her personal life oh-so-slowly has started to slip. A merger brings fellow investigator Blake (Scott Porter), an unwanted professional rival, into the firm, but it’s instantly obvious that these two are not going to play nice. And matters are exacerbated when Blake begins to taunt Kalinda, dropping hints that he knows all about her past.
Suffice it to say that she does not take it well. Given her buttoned-down aloofness, Kalinda’s hands-on attack on Blake’s unprotected car with an aluminum baseball bat is shocking and unsettling. But even while giving into rage, she’s still enough of a hardass to challenge a witness who stumbles upon her impulsive act of vandalism in the deserted parking garage. “What the hell are you looking at?” she demands of the awestruck citizen. “Call the police!”
And then, as the bewildered man scurries off, she continues to methodically destroy the car.
Now that’s cold.
A few episodes later, her former lover Donna (brilliantly played by Lili Tyler) shows up, with an unspecified axe to grind, although it has something to do with Kalinda not being “domestic” enough—whatever that means.
Whether the writers can keep the mystery of Kalinda’s past spinning just out of viewers’ reach indefinitely is hard to tell, but frankly, I hope they can. I don’t want them to turn her into just another soggy-edged weenie carting around more baggage than a bus station. We’ve had enough of those in the last few years.
Kalinda’s absolutely riveting to watch just as she is, the held-in-check ambivalence a tantalizing facet of her evolving character; not a cookie cutter substitute for actual depth.
Imagine! An old-fashioned gumshoe, actually working cases on behalf of a client. No ghostly visitors providing convenient clues, no psychic baloney, no CSI voodoo, no mental disorders played for laughs, no angsty burned spy fashion plates, no human lie detectors, no personal agendas on every single case—just a hard-boiled jane who gets hired to investigate and actually works cases.
How long has it been since we’ve seen that?
I tell you, if they ever pull the plug on The Good Wife or the show ever tanks, CBS ought to spin Kalinda off into her own show.
Hell, I’d watch that.
Montreal-born Kevin Burton Smith is the editor/founder of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, the Internet’s primary source for all things private eye for more than twelve years, as well as a contributing editor to Mystery Scene magazine.