March 24, 2014

NIELSENWAR: On “The Good Wife” and The Business of Plot Twists


{Note:  SPOILERS will follow the weekly and season-to-date ratings below.}

None of the networks are anywhere a 2 rating at this point of the season, with CBS on top last week thanks to its Mon-Wed line-up and less than an hour of NCAA TOURNAMENT overrun on Sunday (the relatively low Thurs-Fri ratings for March Madness were no help).  ABC has to be close to panic about the speed with which the air has been leaking out of RESURRECTION‘s balloon (the show has lost 1/3 of its premiere rating in just 2 weeks), and none of the other new midseason shows have much of a pulse, except for the NBC sitcoms that have THE VOICE as their lead-in.  CBS was at 1.79 for the week (Live + Same Day), up 0.22 from last week, followed by NBC at 1.64 (down 0.05), ABC at 1.52 (down 0.39), FOX at 1.3 (down 0.13) and CW at 0.67 (up 0.28 because the previous week was mostly reruns).

The Season To Date numbers are pretty much set at this point:

NBC:  2.58 (down 0.03 from last week, up 21% from last year because of the Winter Olympics)

FOX:  2.26 (down 0.03 from last week, up 4% from last year because of the Super Bowl)

CBS:  1.90 (down 0.01 from last week, down 24% from last year because of that year’s Super Bowl)

ABC:  1.66 (even with last week, (down 11% from last year)

CW:   0.53  (even with last week, down 2% from last year)

(Note:  Here come the SPOILERS.)

It would be an exaggeration to say that last night’s shocking plot development on THE GOOD WIFE broke the Internet.  Although the show’s title was trending for a while on Twitter, Good Wife‘s fans are too sparse (and let’s face it, too old) for them to have much effect on social media.  Nevertheless, there were literally hundreds of viewers writing in to sites like Deadline and TVLine last night, mostly expressing their fury at the abrupt death (in a courtroom shooting, at the hands of his own client) of series male lead Will Gardner (Josh Charles), and sharing their collective vow never to watch the series again.

The Good Wife, which has to breathe a sign of relief every year that it manages to dodge cancellation (it was renewed last week for Season 6), can ill afford to lose many fans–luckily, history suggests that such passionate viewers don’t desert their shows so easily, once they’ve had a chance to calm down.  But there’s no question that The Good Wife 2.0 is going to be a significantly different show from the one that’s been on the air for the past 5 years.  Good Wife isn’t the first series to lose a major cast member (George Clooney on ER, William Peterson on CSI, Dan Stevens on Downton Abbey), even violently (Gary Dourdan also on CSI, Taraji J. Henson earlier this season on Person of Interest), and Scandal has made its own brand out of “OMG” moments that seem to arrive each episode.  But most of those shows have been built on ensemble casts or procedural plots that aren’t so character-driven, and Shonda Rhimes has so far kept her Grim Reaper from any Scandal series regulars.  Although Stevens was the romantic lead on Downton (and the show has suffered, creatively if not in the ratings, for his loss), the series quickly skipped ahead by enough time so that his widow could begin seeking new suitors.  (The deaths of Ned Stark and–many!–others on Game of Thrones don’t really count, as they were already known to the millions who had read the books and who were, for the most part, kind enough not to ruin the surprises for newbie viewers.)

By all accounts, Josh Charles left The Good Wife by his own request (his contract was shorter than the network norm, and he wanted to move on), but it was the decision of series creators Robert and Michelle King to make his exit so violent and final.  (The Kings, masters of the storytelling head-fake, even threw in a misleading scene for anyone trying to figure out the Big Twist that CBS had been promoting for 2 weeks, suggesting that Kalinda would be the character departing.)  They, the network, and Charles himself  have been at pains to show sensitivity to Willicia (sorry) shippers and their grief:  the Kings penned an open letter to fans, and they and other cast members have been available for interviews; even Charles will appear on the network’s David Letterman Show tonight, as well as showing up in newly-filmed flashback scenes next week and supporting Good Wife as an episodic director later this season.

The Good Wife has been on a mission to reinvent itself all year, after a somewhat flat Season 4, and the consensus has been that the huge structural decision to split Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) and Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) into their own firm, antagonistic to Lockhart Gardner, has transfused new blood into the drama.  Now the series will lose its leading romantic storyline (in one of the quieter developments of last night’s episode, a new prosecutor played by British heartthrob Matthew Goode was added to the regular cast, hardly a coincidence), and the resulting heartwrenching storylines will undoubtedly give Margulies the chance to earn another Emmy nomination.  (And what about Diane!  But I digress.)  Good Wife stands alone among CBS’s series–and really from all broadcast drama, with the possible exception of Parenthood–in being auteurist and sophisticated enough to compete with the best of cable.  The Twist may bring in a few curiosity-seekers next week (not so much new viewers as some who had watched at the start and tapered off), but they’re unlikely to last long, and the show’s challenge in the final 7 episodes of the season will be to prove that it knows what it’s done, without alienating too many of the small but passionate band of viewers who have stuck with it.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."