Bad View of a Corrupt System

The Good Wife premiered September 22 on CBS. It’s the latest reworking of an old recipe for a successful television series–high-powered corporate attorneys from prestigious law firms fighting the good fight in America’s ultimately fair and just courtrooms. It stars veteran television actors Julianna Margulies (ER) and Chris Noth (Sex and the City and Law & Order).

Network television dramas focusing on lawyers are largely fantasies and melodramas. Very little of the real world of the courtroom or the judicial system makes it into even the most successful of this type of series.

But over the last few years, there has been pressure to deal with the real-life issues–and ongoing revelations–of judicial misconduct, corruption, false convictions, torture, racism and the execution of innocent people by the U.S. justice system, or such shows risk losing the “realistic” feel that the networks use to sell them.

How does The Good Wife measure up? Judging from the first episode, not very well.

The series revolves around Alicia Florrick (Margulies), the wife of disgraced Cook County State’s Attorney Peter Florrick (Noth). Peter’s downfall, which was most likely engineered by a subordinate, is the result of public revelations of consorting with prostitutes and charges of prosecutorial misconduct.

If this reminds you of the tawdry scandals involving former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, I don’t think you’re wrong. Alicia, as the title of the show implies, stands by her man. After Peter is carted off to jail, Alicia must return to work as a corporate attorney after not being in the workforce for 15 years.

Right away, there are two problems. First, you know this show is a fantasy because a Cook County state’s attorney would go to jail for something only in my dreams. Overdue parking tickets, bad manners–anything at this point. The criminal history of that office is by now notorious, particularly when it comes to putting innocent people on Illinois’ death row. Especially so when Olympic booster, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, ran the office.

Second, spouses don’t give up their jobs when their partners are elected to office; they parlay them into more lucrative jobs for themselves and friends.

Okay, back to the story.

Alicia then returns to work at a high-powered Chicago law firm where she must compete with a smarmy young male attorney, Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry), for the one slot open. To test her abilities, they assign her a pro bono capital murder case. It will be the second trial for the defendant, a pretty schoolteacher from the suburbs convicted of killing her husband and making it look like a carjacking. Alicia is assigned an investigator, Kalinda Sharma, played by Anglo-Indian actress Archie Panjabi, and given three weeks before the retrial begins.

Okay, a few more problems here.

One, while it may be the custom of courts to assign inexperienced and potentially incompetent attorneys to a capital murder case, mega-law firms doing pro bono work usually assign their best attorneys. You don’t get a capital murder trial after being off the job for 15 years.

Second, waify blonde women from the suburbs don’t get framed for murder in Cook County. The victims are almost entirely, with a few exceptions, Black and Latino working-class men from the inner city, especially when torture plays a big role in the case. Lastly, investigators for law firms tend not to be svelte, smart, young women, but dumpy middle-aged ex-cops or FBI agents.

* * *

Okay, back to the story.

In court, Alicia confronts an acerbic, self-possessed judge played by veteran television actor David Paymer. His difficult demeanor and his distaste for Alicia’s jailbird husband don’t prevent him from ultimately being fair and open to the defense, and hard on the prosecutors.

The case breaks wide open after a tip from Peter about suppressed evidence. Once this is aired in court, the detective in charge of the investigation checks out the new evidence and finds it to be true, and the new Cook County state’s attorney drops the charges. Alicia wins her first case and gets to keep her job.

Okay, last round of problems.

First, judges tend to be ex-cops or prosecutors, and are hostile to the defense. They are also very hostile to introducing new evidence in the middle of a trial or the defense changing its strategy. Second, if Peter knew about the suppressed evidence (even if was just a rumor), what does that say about him? Doesn’t he deserve, say, a few more years in jail?

Third, cops don’t junk their own investigations. They don’t come clean. That’s one of the reasons why the falsely convicted spend decades in jail. Lastly, prosecutors don’t drop cases without a major battle; this is another reason that the falsely convicted spend decades in prison.

Am I being too harsh? Reality is harsh. Network television could just be better at dealing with it.

Michelle King, one of the creators of The Good Wife, knows better. A few years ago, she was the creative force behind In Justice, a short-lived ABC series about a San Francisco legal foundation called the National Justice Project, clearly based on the real-life Innocence Project, that works to free the wrongly convicted.

In Justice was one of the best shows on network television. What happened? The short answer is that it should have gone to cable–it might still be on the air.

Shouldn’t we give The Good Wife some credit? No, because–and forgive the pun–the bar has been raised. That’s why people should watch TNT’s Raising the Bar, a great show about public defenders in New York City.

Halfway through the first episode of The Good Wife, Alicia tries to help her client through her ordeal by advising her to put on some make-up and buy a new outfit. “It’s the superficial things that matter right now,” she says. Unfortunately, it’s the superficial things that matter to ABC.

JOE ALLEN is the author of Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost.

JOE ALLEN is the author of The Package King: A Rank and File History of United Parcel Service.