|Will is not pleased with Alicia's decision in "The Good Wife"|
“Hitting the Fan” may have been the 94th episode of The Good Wife, but it was a pilot in every way, shape, and form. Within the fabulous first 15 minutes, most of the characters and conflicts are established, and the show sets out on a thrilling hour of twist and turns, crosses and double-crosses as two law firms try to kill each other in one of my favorite episodes of this television year. And the most amazing part? I had never seen a single second of the show before Sunday night.
It’s not that I hadn’t wanted to watch The Good Wife. After all, it is the last, real “prestige drama” on network television. And though it has been a few years since the show was the last broadcast series nominated for a Best Drama Emmy, it still has that air of being the last of its kind, from a time when shows like Boston Legal and The West Wing dominated the awards discussion. But there’s a lot of great television on these days, so it’s difficult to pick up a show in its fifth season that seems always to be on the brink of cancelation. But last night’s episode received a lot of hype as a reboot of the show, so I tuned in and it was worth all of the hype.
Warning: I’m going to get deep into the plot here for a few paragraphs, even discussing some parts beat-by-beat, but it’s important because I’m trying to demonstrate how well this show takes an existing world, opens it up for new viewers, and completely envelops them. It is really fantastic work.
What stands out in “Hitting the Fan” is how quickly the writers and director James Whitmore (more on him later) are able establish the action and the relationships. We open with a publicist trying to pitch a campaign of “stability” to Will, the main focus of the first act. It’s a wry bit of dramatic irony for the longtime viewer who is probably well aware that things are about to, well, look at the episode’s title. But this is just a brief apéritif before the meal begins when another lawyer walks in and lays everything out in one sentence: “Alicia and Cary are leaving the firm and they’re taking clients our with them.”
Bam! Not ten seconds in and the entire conflict is laid out. Will and Diane versus Alicia and Cary. We don’t yet know who to root for or if there are good guys and bad guys in this equation, but everything is put out on the table.
Then, in a marvelous bit of visual storytelling, as Will walks through the office we get two brief (less than a second each) flashes of a brunette woman – first, smiling at the camera under bed covers; second, just smiling at the camera. In less than a second, the show has told us that Will and Alicia are-or at least were-lovers. This is not just a professional betrayal, but a personal one as well.
Remember, I’ve never seen this show before and yet, within the first two minutes, I know all of the major players and what they have at stake in the story. If only more actual pilots could be structured this way.
When Will finally reaches Alicia’s office he asks such a simple, mild question that it actually made me laugh: “You’re leaving?” It’s such an understated query and Josh Charles underplays it so well that Alicia’s naïve response, “What? No I just got here” is on point and hilarious as well. The terror and confusion that slowly spreads across her face as she absorbs the true import of Will’s question tells me everything I need to know about why Julianna Margulies has been nominated for three Emmys for this role and won once. You see every question that crosses her mind in those brief few seconds. “Oh God, does he know? He can’t know. What does he know? Who told him? Who else knows? What do I do now?” All of that is right there in a few wordless seconds.
What follows (at least after Will’s tirade seen above) is a classic caper, as the firm settles on two sides, the departing lawyers try to take what they can with him and Will tries to ferret out the opposition. We get dueling restraining orders, a pair of double-crosses, and the bitchiest bitch hand in the history of bitch hands.
The only part of the episode I struggled with was Alicia’s husband, Peter, and the ways in which he enters the story. Obviously, there’s a lot of back story here that I don’t know, but for the purposes of the episode, he kind of comes in as a deus ex machina to solve the new firm’s new problems and win them the big client they need to succeed. It would have been nice to see Alicia build this on her own from the start, rather than require her husband to save the day for her, but that’s such a minor quibble in an otherwise fantastic episode.
What amazes me most about “Hitting the Fan” is how much it trusts the viewers. This is clearly designed as a reboot of the series or a second pilot. Names are stated or repeated a few more times than you would normally see an episode that’s not trying to draw in new viewers and the episode is entirely self-contained. But they still drop us into the middle of the action and basically say “keep up.” Characters are introduced quickly then brought back later. Past events are referenced in a way that might slip by somebody not paying attention. For example, Alicia gets her restraining order from a judge Will apparently pissed off in a previous episode. They don’t lay out the whole situation, but enough information is given so that the new viewers understand what’s going on.
More television pilots should be like this. So many pilots today are so obsessed with establishing their premise or making sure viewers don’t get lost that they sometimes forget to be interesting or entertaining. Sleepy Hollow is another good example of pilots that get it right. There’s less than five minutes of exposition and then we’re on to the action.
If you’ve been wavering about picking up The Good Wife or wanting to catch up on Netflix first, let me assure you, “Hitting the Fan” is an excellent time to get on board. I can’t say that it’s a show that will enter my regular rotation, simply because Sunday nights are already stuffed with quality television, but I’m certainly going to try to keep up, because it really is a great television show and one of the best on broadcast television.
A couple of spare thoughts –
You may not know James Whitmore’s name but you’ve undoubtedly seen his work. He’s a journeyman director whose work I first saw during his stint on the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer but he’s directed for dozens of series over the last three decades including 21 Jump Street, Quantum Leap, 24, Dawson’s Creek, NCIS, and a host of others. He hasn’t gotten the attention that some of the acclaimed cable directors like Michelle McLaren and Rian Johnson have. Nor has he gotten the opportunity to transition into feature film work like the Russo brothers or Alan Taylor, who are directing the upcoming Captain America and Thor movies, respectively. But he’s got an immense résumé of really good work and this just might be his best (though I’ll always have a special place in my heart for “The Zeppo”).
“We’re coming after you: all your clients. Every single one we worked to make happy while you swept in at the last minute to take credit. We’re taking them. And then you know what you’ll have? A very nice suite of offices.”
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