Written by Kevin Burton Smith
The best damn private eye on television?
Archie Panjabi as Kalinda Sharma, the enigmatic private investigator on The Good Wife. Courtesy CBS.
No, CBS’ The Good Wife is not a private-eye show. It’s really more of a legal thriller. Created by husband-and-wife writing team Michelle and Robert King, it stars Julianna Margulies (formerly of ER) as Alicia, the beleaguered wife of Peter Florrick, a prominent state’s attorney (played by Law and Order’s Chris Noth). When Peter’s busted and sent to the hoosegow amidst charges of corruption and a sex scandal, Alicia stands by her man.
Suddenly the sole breadwinner for her family, she throws herself back into the work force as a junior defense attorney at a high-priced Chicago firm. Alicia’s steely resolve to take the high road gives the show an unexpected moral underpinning. It’s all very noble and inspiring and sharply written, timely and provocative, placing demands on an adult audience that isn’t afraid to be occasionally shaken. Perfect bait for critics and awards.
The real hook, though, lies in its twisty, turny tumble of hidden agendas, backroom politics, lies, and conspiracies. The show’s a tsunami of secrets. Just when you think you have a character, a plot, a motive pinned down, the writers yank the rug out. Everyone, it seems, has something to hide, and nothing is ever black and white.
But nobody has more secrets—or prowls those murky gray areas better—than Kalinda Sharma, the firm’s savvy, leather wrapped private investigator. For my money, she’s not just the most interesting character on the show—she’s the best private eye on the tube these days. And in a long time.
Despite her thoroughly modern modus operandi (database diving, computer hacking, etc.) and the fact she’s female (never mind of East Indian descent, a true rarity on American television), Kalinda is actually, in many ways, a throwback to the genre’s roots.
As played by Archie Panjabi, Kalinda presents a tightly wound professionalism rarely seen in the PI genre these days. The leather she sports is not the shimmery come-hither stuff of adolescent fantasy—rather, she wears it like armor to keep the world at bay. Her antecedents aren’t amiable guys like Rockford or Magnum, cuddly losers like Monk, poor wet puppies like Terriers’ Hank or Charlie’s jiggly Angels—nope, her roots go back much further, back to a time when private eyes weren’t necessarily likable. Back to the very roots of the genre, to the pages of the hardboiled pulps of the 1920s, when hardbitten gumshoes like Carroll John Daly’s Race Williams boasted in the pages of Black Mask, “I ain’t afraid of nothing...providing there’s enough jack in it.”
That’s the sort of sangfroid Kalinda has in spades. Professionally she’s not just cold— she’s Dashiell Hammett-cold. Hard and tough as a pair of brass knuckles. Hell, the way she dispassionately works her cases, facing down her enemies without flinching and standing up to violence, she could be The Continental Op’s illegitimate daughter.
But she’s no one-note Susie, either.
In a video landscape that too often serves up even major characters as shallow stick figures, she’s a real feast. The more we’re told about Kalinda, it turns out, the less we actually know. While there’s no doubt about her professionalism, her ethics, allegiances and motives are steeped in ambivalence—and her personal life is also somewhere in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” area.
Is she a prickly ice queen who only lives for the job? A femme fatale more than willing to use sex as a weapon? Is she a lesbian? Bisexual? Straight? Asexual?
In the first season, for which Panjabi nabbed a well-deserved Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series, we learned that she used to work for Peter, but that she’s willing to sell him out to his political enemies. Or is she?
In the second season, however, Kalinda has really come into her own, even as the veneer of her personal life has oh-so-slowly started to slip. A merger brings fellow investigator Blake, an unwanted (and possibly unscrupulous) professional rival, into the firm, but it’s soon clear these two are not going to play nice. And matters are exacerbated when Blake begins threatening to reveal secrets from her past.
Suffice it to say Kalinda does not take it well. Given her buttoned-down aloofness and chilly pragmatism, her attack on Blake’s unprotected car with an aluminum baseball bat is deliciously unsettling. Even better, she gets in the face of a witness who inadvertently interrupts her rampage. “What the hell are you looking at?” she snaps. “Call the police!”
As the bewildered citizen scurries off, she continues to methodically destroy the car.
Now that’s cold.
Later in this season a former lover, brilliantly played by Lili Taylor, shows up, picking at old wounds, something to do with Kalinda not being “domestic” enough—whatever that means.
Whether the writers can keep the mysteries of Kalinda spinning just out of viewers’ reach indefinitely is hard to tell, but frankly, I hope so. I don’t want her to become just another soggy-edged weenie PI carting around more baggage than a bus station redcap. We’ve had enough of those in the last few years.
Kalinda’s absolutely riveting just as she is. Imagine! An old fashioned gumshoe, actually working cases on behalf of a client. No psychic baloney, no CSI voodoo, no mental disorders played for laughs, no angsty fashion-plate burned spies, no personal agendas on every single case—just a hardboiled jane who gets hired to investigate and actually works her cases.
How long has it been since we’ve seen that? I tell you, if they ever pull the plug on The Good Wife, they ought to spin Kalinda off into her own show.
Hell, I’d watch that.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #118.