American television is as good as it’s ever been right now, which means it has the best writing in the entertainment industry. American film isn’t even close. This week we saw the end of one of the greatest shows in TV history, with the finale of Lost. If you love great writing like I do, that’s a big loss. But there’s a lot of talent in TV right now. So while we’ve been reluctantly bidding farewell to Lost, The Good Wife has quietly moved up the ranks until it is now one of the five best dramas on TV.
When you watch a terrific single episode of television, you naturally want to praise the author of that episode. But a huge amount of the credit for any episode must go to the original construction of the show itself. In fact, creating a great series on TV is almost totally dependent on the show’s structural conception.
In my TV Drama class, I talk extensively about the seven key structural elements that determine a successful show and how to write them. One of those is the character web. Character web is crucial in any work of fiction, but especially in TV drama where the audience returns to the same family of characters week after week, hopefully for years to come.
Character web has to do with how all the characters in a story hang together as a single fabric. Notice we’re not just talking about the main character here. We’re talking about how all the characters relate to one another, both connecting and contrasting. If you come up with a unique character web, in which each character is set in opposition to the others in the right structural way, you will have a successful series that can run forever. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
If you study the character web on The Good Wife, you see one of the reasons this is the best legal drama to come along in some time. There are many elements that go in to creating a tight character web, including character hierarchy, role, and archetype. But the element that most distinguishes the character web on The Good Wife is the moral relationship of all the characters.
Legal dramas have been shading the line between good and bad, guilt and innocence, for a long time. The days of the righteous defender against the oppressive prosecutor are long gone. David Kelly has done a number of legal dramas that highlight the moral complexity of being a lawyer. But The Good Wife has taken the moral conundrum to a new level.
The key technique for constructing a moral character web is to start with the central moral problem of the hero. Then make all other characters some variation of that moral problem. In The Good Wife, Alicia Florrick, the main character of the title, begins as a “good person.” In fact she is perceived as a paragon of virtue because her husband, the state prosecutor, has been caught cheating on her and is in jail for corruption. Alicia must go back to work as an attorney to support her family while under the harsh glare of publicity.
As the first season progresses, however, Alicia finds herself in a number of morally difficult situations that call into question just how good she really is. Most prominently, she feels a strong attraction to her boss and has to use her husband’s possibly corrupt connections to defeat a colleague who is competing for her job. From her initial elevated position, Alicia can only decline when forced to succeed in a morally impure world. As Sartre said, we all have dirty hands
Creating this interesting main character is the first step in building a strong show. But what sets The Good Wife apart is the way the show’s creators, Michelle and Robert King, have constructed a web where all the characters must traverse morally dangerous ground. And each character, like Alicia, must find some balance between love and business success without becoming morally corrupt.
Having set up a character web where each character is caught between guilt and innocence, the Kings can play out a story structure in each episode that combines stand alone and serial elements and is dense with reversals and betrayals. Each episode tackles a legal case that serves as the fulcrum for all the characters to have to confront tough moral decisions. With so many characters conniving and choosing, each episode feels like a moral cyclone where everyone is simultaneously jockeying for success without losing their soul.
This story structure gives the show two major strengths. First, even the minor characters have complexity, so each is compelling and together they are a knockout. Second, each episode is packed with plot: the writers tease the audience with a moral challenge in the opening and then relentlessly turn the screws until the final scene.
Because this show was constructed so well from the start, I expect it will only get better as it goes on. Whether you are interested in writing for television or not – and you should be – study The Good Wife to see how master storytellers work the craft. Goodbye Lost, hello The Good Wife.