Breaking ground: Alicia (Julianna Margulies) and Will (Josh Charles) in <i>The Good Wife</i>, a show that is setting new standards.

Breaking ground: Alicia (Julianna Margulies) and Will (Josh Charles) in The Good Wife, a show that is setting new standards. Photo: Supplied

(Spoiler warning: If you have not seen the latest episode of the series and do not want to know what happened - stop reading now.)

Most of us carry around highly unrealistic notions about death – in part thanks to popular culture. 

Consider the portrayal of the "unexpected" death on television. Generally, a character’s tragic demise will be foreshadowed. Sometimes, this is as explicit as a "who will die?" teaser advertisement. Sometimes, it’s more subtle, like an omen or ominous music. 

As the character slips away, a lover or relative will clutch their hand, leaning in to hear their poignant last words. Other characters will be haunted by their thoughtless and unwittingly final remark or deed.

Such tragedies are invariably freighted with meaning. Lessons are learned and lives change. A television death is never in vain. 

These portrayals, however, leave us ill-equipped to deal with the reality of an ordinary day that simply explodes with tragedy.

We may be told our partner has been killed in a traffic accident, for instance. We realise our last moment of contact was not a steamy love-making session; it was our rushed text message instructing them to pick up the dry cleaning. We cannot grasp that there will be no goodbye. We search for meaning but none presents itself. We’re caught off-guard by the sheer exhaustion of bereavement; by how damn long this overwhelming fog persists. We’re accustomed to seeing the intense anguish of grief depicted in popular culture, but rarely these other aspects. 

All of which makes the current episodes of Channel Ten’s The Good Wife remarkable.

Not only is the realism of character Will Gardner’s death a dramatic triumph; it is this very realism (and the complex portrayal of mourning in the subsequent episodes) that offers consolation to anyone affected by tragedy.

"We were very deliberately trying to mimic real life," says Michelle King, who, with husband Robert King, is the creator and writer of the acclaimed series. "More often than not, when tragedy occurs, you’re not together [with your loved one]."

The episode, titled Dramatics Your Honor, blindsided The Good Wife’s American fans when it aired on the CBS network several weeks ago. No one outside the show even knew that actor Josh Charles, who plays Will, was leaving.

Significantly, the series’ lead character Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) was not with Will when he died; she was notified by phone. Their last communication was frustratingly mundane and ambiguous. 

For five seasons, the relationship between Alicia and Will – a romance that evolved into passion-fuelled professional warfare – was central to the program. And now ... this. No dying declaration of love from Will. No sweet final kiss for Alicia to cherish.

Of course, the Kings could have "transferred" Will to another city when Charles resigned, leaving open the possibility of a romantic reunion. The fact they didn’t speaks volumes, demonstrating why The Good Wife  is one of the best shows on television right now – including cable. Indeed, while cable dramas bask in critical praise, The Good Wife acts as the quiet revolutionary, breaking new ground in the way it tackles gender relations, religion, technology, big government and many other issues. 

By killing Will, the Kings sent a strong message to viewers: Alicia is much more than her love life. 

"That love triangle aspect had become a bit of a curse," Robert says. "Even the advertising seemed to be pushing the love triangle over everything. But for us, the arc of the show has always been ’the education of Alicia Florrick’, and only one part of that was her relationships with Peter and Will. We thought this was a good way to put an arrow into the heart of that."

Perhaps the show’s greatest achievement is its depiction of women. All three female leads (lawyer Alicia, Christine Baranski as law firm boss Diane Lockhart, and Archie Panjabi as investigator Kalinda Sharma) transcend the usual boundaries. All pursue and wield power, yet unlike other female TV protagonists, none is subtly portrayed as heartless or having to "pay the price" of a miserable personal life. Nor is anyone is made to be zany, cute or infantalisingly girlish to be likeable. 

This is a world away from Ally McBeal, in which the title character – also a lawyer – was prone to babbling about her romantic entanglements in court, whiling away her workday in a mist of fantasies, and dissolving into a stuttering mess in the presence of cute guys. 

"All three of us have grown-up voices, not little-girl voices," Baranski says. "I hear this from so many women. They’re just so happy to watch a show that portrays successful adult women, with all the complexities of their lives."

Baranski also relished Diane’s rich friendship with Will, refreshingly unencumbered by sexual tension or gender-based misunderstandings.

"They’d fight and their relationship would be on the line," she says, "then they’d work through it as adults and emerge stronger than ever. They had an incredible intimacy and rapport. You don’t often see those kinds of friendships [between men and women] portrayed on television or film."

Of course, nothing is more dull to viewers than a one-dimensional Good Role Model. But the depth of The Good Wife’s characters – combined with its superb music, taut dialogue and engaging courtroom mini-dramas in each episode – make it a unique pleasure. You get the immediate gratification you expect from network television combined with the thought-provoking subtlety and challenging storylines of an HBO series. 

Five seasons in, it should have settled into a semi-predictable rhythm. Instead, the Kings have taken it to new heights. American reviewers have responded by almost pestering their readers to catch up. "[You’re] probably sick of TV critics harping on about how you should be watching The Good Wife," conceded The Atlantic’s Richard Lawson, "but at the moment, [it] is more engaging, artful television than The Walking Dead, Homeland or any of its other prestige cable competition."

It is this season that has rightfully garnered the show its most effusive praise, thanks to the Kings’ willingness to shake things up: first through the dramatic split of the law firm, then Will’s death. 

These twists come one season after Alicia announced herself as an atheist. For the show to make its lead character a non-believer, instead of merely a character, again reflects its increasingly bold direction. After all, it is conventional wisdom in the US that atheists are considered too "unlikeable" to be elected president. But this plot development allows the show to cleverly explore religion via the discussions between Alicia and her born-again daughter, Grace (Makenzie Vega). 

"It actually started as a comic premise," Robert explains. "We thought, ’What’s the one thing a child of the ’60s and ’70s can’t tolerate?’ They’re all about tolerance of others and they have an anger towards intolerance, so they have trouble tolerating a child who turns conservative or religious on them."

Robert, who is Catholic, and Michelle, who is Jewish, were also frustrated by other TV dramas’ instinctive avoidance of all things religious. 

"If you look at the newspaper, I’d say that 40 per cent of what’s going on in the world is happening because of religion," Robert says. "In real life, religion is talked about much more than it is on TV."

Impressively, there was nary a raised eyebrow within CBS in response to Alicia’s atheism, or indeed any other storyline. 

"We’ve had nothing but appreciation from CBS for doing things differently," Robert says. "They’ve allowed us to pursue issues like abortion and corporate corruption without any hesitation ... we’re thrilled and we just want to go even deeper.

"We feel like we’ve just scratched the surface."

The Good Wife, Wednesday, 9.30pm, Ten.