What’s to become of broadcast television now that CBS’ The Good Wife has reached the end of its run? It’s an important question, given that this show has been the only network drama series during the last few years that could rightfully and without question be positioned alongside the best that cable channels and streaming services have had to offer. This sad milestone reminds me of those 12 long months beginning in January, 1998, when NBC announced that Seinfeld – widely regarded at the time as the last great American scripted series (of both the funny and dramatic kind) – would come to an end that spring (around the same time that CBS’ Murphy Brown, another important groundbreaker, also closed shop). Pundits decried that television as we knew it was over, and it wasn’t until HBO unleashed The Sopranos the following January that the industry exhaled. The magic could still happen. Television has been doing just fine ever since.
Television overall will continue to do just fine without The Good Wife even if, for the many millions of us who thrive on sophisticated adult entertainment Sunday nights will not be the same (especially coming so soon after the end of PBS’ Downton Abbey). But for years now The Good Wife has occupied prime shelf space alongside the best shows that HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX, Netflix and Amazon have had to offer.
But what happens after Sunday, when The Good Wife leaves us for good? We’ll see what kind of new dramatic programming the broadcasters have come up with for the 2016-17 television season throughout the week of May 16 during their Upfront presentations. But outside of ABC’s brilliant but shamefully low-rated American Crime, which is a limited series rather than an ongoing one, NBC’s riveting but also largely ignored drama Hannibal (the most consistently shocking and disturbing drama series ever seen on a broadcast network) there hasn’t been anything like The Good Wife on broadcast television during this decade, and there may never be again, at least among those shows with an annual order of 20 episodes or more.
CBS executives have bristled to the last whenever critics describe The Good Wife as “cable-worthy.” But the description has fit, and will continue to do so, at least until the FCC acknowledges that millions of aging Millennials and the wireless-since-birth kids that now comprise Generation Z have seen it all (and, in some cases, done it all) on or via the Internet and simply cannot fathom why broadcast television is mandated to remain so old and dusty and, worst of all, repressed. Jeepers, even the advertising community has finally let it go, to the benefit and profit of all involved.
What’s a broadcaster to do under such punishing circumstances? Well, with apologies to those easily offended CBS executives, follow the lead of masterful The Good Wife creators Robert and Michelle King and their supremely talented cast and crew in creating literate, sophisticated, compelling adult drama that is edgy, sexy and confrontational without taking the low road or asserting that viewers do not have attention spans.
Along with its singularly sensational writing, The Good Wife will be remembered as a sterling showcase for many of the finest adult actors of its time, including its primary cast (led consistently throughout its seven season by Julianna Margulies and Christine Baranski), its supporting players (especially Alan Cumming, Archie Panjabi and, most recently, Cush Jumbo) and its outrageously strong ensemble of recurring guest stars -- including Michael J. Fox, Carrie Preston, Dylan Baker, Stockard Channing, Mike Colter, Mamie Gummer, Martha Plimpton, Rita Wilson, the marvelous actors who played all of those judges and whiz-kids at the NSA and so many more.
Speaking of the latter, this may be the last time I get to call attention to the fact that throughout its run The Good Wife has more thoroughly and believably incorporated smart observations about the explosion of digital media and knowledge-rich insights into the countless societal issues and legal challenges it continues to create (not the least of which concern personal privacy and the continued corrosion of the First Amendment). In many ways it has been the most timely and important dramatic program of the millennium to date.
A version of this column was published in the Planet Ed blog at MediaVillage.