CBS

There's biting off more than you can chew, and there's last night's episode of The Good Wife, which took a run at issues of institutional racism and the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and ended up smashing into a wall. It was easy to tell something unusual was afoot when the show opened with a title card reading "This episode was written and filmed prior to the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island … All mentions of 'Ferguson' are in reference to the events in August 2014 after the shooting death of Michael Brown." Which prompted the question: How would this episode, centered on a political debate between State's Attorney candidates Alicia Florrick and Frank Prady, tackle such a complicated topic?

The answer: clumsily, to say the least. The Good Wife usually excels when keeping it topical, and is remarkably nimble for a network show, getting to current events much more quickly than a 22-episode CBS behemoth should. It's tackled sensitive issues (such as campus rape or NSA wiretapping) with verve and intelligence, and also throws many a sly wink to saucier political theater (Peter's Eliot Spitzer-like affair is core to the original premise) and the Internet memes of the hour. This episode, for some colossally silly reason, featured all of the above. We had Alicia moving to fight off publicity about Peter's latest affair (a fling with his in-house counsel), the firm negotiating a divorce suit for its faux-Google CEO Neil Gross (somehow the words "the Fappening" were uttered), and a looming jury verdict on the homicide of a black Chicagoan, with racial tension about to boil over if the white cops responsible were exonerated.

This show often excels at spinning so many plates at the same time, somehow seamlessly switching between comic material, political squabbling, and truly weighty issues. Not this time. It's hard to say what the biggest misstep was, but things really came apart when Alicia and Frank Prady, their debate interrupted by the breaking news of the jury's verdict, started an impromptu discussion in a hotel kitchen over the best ways to address systemic racism in law enforcement, while the kitchen staff (mostly people of color) gathered and began to interject.

Why are two white people debating the best way to improve diversity at the State's Attorney office, asked one onlooker. Why pledge to decrease focus on drug crime when such crime can impact minority communities, said another. Another recent immigrant expressed the feeling that African-Americans are responsible for most crime, setting off even more furious debate, a cacophony of yelling that had Alicia and Frank looking befuddled. Herein lies the problem of the episode: It sought to make no real point outside of "issues of race in America sure are complicated!" Alicia and Frank staked out their ground, but the show was careful to side with no one and rather tugged at its collar. It felt patronizing, to say the very least, and like the show was trying to acknowledge recent events while admitting it lacks the authority to really dig into them.

Just as tin-eared was a plot centering around the political tinderbox on Chicago's streets as the verdict came in, with Governor Peter Florrick trying to corral two rival religious leaders in the community (recurring characters on the show played by Frankie Faison and Gbenga Akinnagbe) and the mayor, who was inexplicably absent. Peter made the choice to take to the streets and stand in silent solidarity with the leaders of the protest, which seemingly calmed the potential for serious clashes between police and protestors. This was handled with a little more subtlety—Peter made a good political call without too much grandstanding and let those with authority over the issue do the talking—but was mixed in with the dull drama of him breaking off his affair with Connie Nielsen's character, which could have waited a couple of weeks.

This show has done much, much better in the past. A multi-episode plotline in season three explored the banal, systematic racism of the State's Attorney's office, with Peter promoting Cary to a top deputy position despite his relative lack of experience. Peter saw Cary as a good hire, as he indisputably proved to be, but also as a peer in a way that he probably could not have with the office's more-experienced black attorneys. Over the span of several episodes, the show did a nuanced job exploring Peter's bias, which he could never really acknowledge to himself, as a way of examining ingrained white privilege. In contrast, “The Debate” tried to tackle the issues of Ferguson and Eric Garner in just 42 minutes.

The Good Wife is about to go on another break before returning in March for the final 10 episodes of the season, and at the very least, the stakes for that run are now clearly laid out. The law firm has re-hired the mean and wonderful bulldog David Lee (Zach Grenier), and with Cary back in his office, we should have plenty of juicy courtroom drama in a season that's been a little lacking of late. Alicia is finally, firmly committed to the idea that she's the right person for the job, and is throwing herself into her campaign. Tech magnate Neil Gross has fired the firm, so hopefully we never have to hear the words "ChumHum" again. It's been a muddled season, but this framework offers great potential for a big turnaround. And with any luck, “The Debate” will prove a lesson to the show in the future, prompting it to slow down and give searing topical issues the time they deserve.

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