Narrative Politics in Contemporary TV Legal Drama: The Good Wife and Damages

by Katja Kanzler

My paper explores what I consider a trend in recent tv legal drama: to self-consciously tap into and ambiguate the convention of political 'issue-orientation' that exists in the genre, its capacity to engage with political issues, well researched around programs ranging from The Defenders (1961-65) to The Practice (1997-2004). I suggest that some legal dramas in the new millennium – including The Good Wife (2009-) and Damages (2007-2012) – invoke and rework this convention by introducing an ethical dimension that complicates political categories and easily didactic political readings. The series will serve me as two very different examples – one a network, the other a cable program; one relying primarily on episodic, the other on serial narration – to discuss the textual dynamics and cultural effects of this new trend. The textual dynamics I want to trace there resonate with the set of techniques theorized by media scholar Jason Mittell as "complex narrative": "a new paradigm of television storytelling [that] has emerged over the past two decades, with a reconceptualization of the boundary between episodic and serial forms, a heightened degree of self-consciousness in storytelling mechanics, and demands for intensified viewer engagement focused on both diegetic pleasures and formal awareness."1 I am interested in how the two series integrate the techniques of complex narrative into the conventions of the legal drama to 'complexify' the genre's political issue-orientation. In particular, I want to probe into the ways in which the series cultivate tensions between the political agendas ostensibly pursued by their characters and the ethics involved in realizing these by foregrounding the rhetorical nature of politics. The Good Wife and Damages, as I will outline, not only depict this rhetoricity in their storyworlds of law, they also explore it through their own narrative form and self-reflexive engagement with representation and signification.




 1 Mittell, Jason. "Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television." The Velvet Light Trap 58 (2006): 29-40. 39.