Tennis v. Shootout, Anyone?

It used to be a cliche in the theater what whenever a playwright wanted to clear the stage so that principle characters could talk alone, an actor in white shorts would rush in waving a racquet and shout, “Tennis, anyone?”

Then all the people who weren’t needed for the next scene would race off.

Bringing in the Greek god

Bringing in the Greek god

A similar device in Greek theater is known as deus ex machina, or “god from the machine,” which means that when human characters confront an unsolvable problem, the playwright flies in a god to fix it. In Greek times, a visible machine with a crane was used that the audience pretended not to notice, thus granting the gods their divine power.

In the 20th century, the transition to a new kind of deus ex machina was attributed to actor Humphrey Bogart. After reporters asked for years if he made the Tennis, Anyone? device famous, Bogart told a Hollywood columnist in 1948:

“I used to play juveniles on Broadway and came bouncing into drawing rooms with a tennis racket under my arm and the line: ‘Tennis anybody?’ It was a stage trick to get some of the characters off the set so the plot could continue. Now when they want some characters out of the way, I come in with a gun and bump ‘em off.”

Picture of Bogart with gun

Bogart clearing the room

Amazing, isn’t it? The entertainment world changed this plot device from a mild invitation to play tennis to a deadly attack by gunshot. In the process, you might say that Tennis, Anyone? turned into Shootout, Anyone? and the guy with the pistol became a criminal version of deux ex machina.

Today the phrase,Tennis, Anyone? is a catch-all for the kind of phony contrivance you see when, for example, a TV actor like Josh Charles, who plays attorney Will Gardner on The Good Wife, refuses to renew his contract.

That was the “gut punch” that Robert and Michelle King, creators of The Good Wife, confessed knocked the stuffing out of them when Charles’ made his surprise decision to quit the program. They felt backed into a corner, and who could blame them?  Will Gardner’s passion for protagonist Alicia Florrick had become central to the show’s enormous success over four seasons.

How to get rid of the lead romantic interest? A new version of Tennis, Anyone? — like a judge rushing in with a basketball, asking,  “Pick-up game, anyone?” — had been used before, when Will got in trouble for allegedly bribing judges. So that was out. Giving Will cancer would be too slow (Josh Charles wanted to leave now), and we know Will wouldn’t fall in love with somebody else (tried it — she went to London). Going to prison was not an option (that’s Alicia’s husband Peter’s gig), as was falling out of love with Alicia (never).

Josh Charles as Will and Julianna Margulies as Alicia in 'The Good Wife'

Josh Charles as Will and Julianna Margulies as Alicia in ‘The Good Wife’

So killing him off was the only answer, it appeared, but the Kings forgot a key writing requirement that comes with this deus ex machina choice today: If a beloved central character like Will Gardner must die, he has to die for a reason. He has to be involved organically in the ongoing story, and the legacy he leaves behind must contribute to the growth of other characters, which we’ll get to later.

I think the Kings forgot about this because they seem to have been distracted, as 21st-century TV creator-writers often are, by the fact that in our post-9/11, post-Columbine society, you can do so much with blood spatter after Dexter. They knew the Shootout, Anyone? device happens so often on TV crime shows that a clerk in a local convenience store can’t look twice at a customer without guns coming out and soda bottles bursting and Little Debbies shot off the shelves as automatic firearms go ding, ding, ding down the row.

We viewers in turn are so accustomed to out-of-nowhere violence that we can predict it’s not the anonymous clerk who’ll be caught in the crossfire — it’ll be the beloved Dad who innocently stopped by for milk and is now lying dead among the Debbies, or the newly engaged fiance who’s just discovered she’s pregnant, or the veteran cop who never fired a weapon in 20 years “on the job” and was hurrying off to the retirement dinner when Fate intervened.

Promo for Will's death scene - don't forget that happy smile

Promo for Will’s death scene – don’t forget that happy smile

This is why killing off Will Gardner in a courtroom shootout was so obvious and cheap. It was beneath the standards we’ve come to expect of an otherwise smart, relevant and innovative series.  The coincidences alone were hard to believe: Will just happened to get in the way of a flying bullet? His colleagues Diane and Kalinda just happened to be working down the hall? The bailiff just happened to leave his loaded gun unbuttoned, inches away from the client’s unshackled body? The deranged client just happened to turn paranoid at the moment the pistol came into view? (And why did the usually observant Will miss every warning sign the panicked client revealed from the first arrest?  We viewers all saw it — Kalinda kept mentioning it — so why not Will, except that it was another convenient coincidence.)

I thought TV critics would denounce The Good Wife for using such a tacky plot device that broadcasts a dangerous and inaccurate message about violence in America. That message is:  Shootouts are so prevalent today that gunfire is as likely to kill Our Hero as a heart attack or car accident. This is not true, and it’s doubly irresponsible coming from writers who’ve been so fastidious about the accurate portrayal of real controversies in our time, such as Bitcoin currency,  insurance fraud, rape in the military, undocumented immigrants, surrogate mothers, army torture, sexual harassment, capital punishment, wiretapping, and of course the Cheese Guild (which you have to see to believe).  Shootouts are incredibly rare in  society, but they’re so sensationalized by the American press that they seem to be  “considerably more common than they are.” 

So why did the Kings use the Shootout, Anyone approach? Maybe all they wanted wanted was a big distraction. Maybe they hoped the gunshots, screaming crowds and blood-spattered walls would cause TV critics to be so dazzled  that they’d forget how shameful and outrageous it is that Josh Charles would blithely walk out on the complicated and seductive character whom he and the Kings so carefully created over four seasons.

Writer Delia Ephron

Writer Delia Ephron

Indeed, other than Delia Ephron, who wrote a silly essay in the New York Times that she was mad at the “selfishness” of Josh Charles because she personally was going to miss his sex scenes, most of the critics I read praised the show for unleashing a “bombshell” and keeping Will’s death a secret for nearly a year.

Josh Charles himself appeared proud and happy on the Dave Letterman program when he should have been ashamed and apologetic for crippling the series by removing its most riveting male character and story line. it was as though he expected audiences to pretend not to notice the deus ex machina of the moment so we could keep on loving the character of Will after he’s gone.

Which brings us back to the integrity of any work of fiction, which is to say that every event has to have a reason, including a character’s death. The great irony of The Good Wife is that a foundation had been laid for several legitimate possibilities leading to Will’s murder that would have contributed to the strengths of the show.  All the writers had to do was follow their own subplots.

Suppose, for example, Will is killed — possibly assassinated? — when he’s on the way to meet someone involved with, say,  the voter fraud issue that’s dragging Peter down, or the drug-smuggling kingpin who may switch law firms, or the Milwaukee Food Festival bomb suspect, or webcam spies, or tampered juries, the hilarious Office of Public Integrity (this has got to be a spoof on the National Security Council), all of which offered complex gray areas in which Will is neither villain nor hero.

That self-righteous guy, Eric Bogasian

That self-righteous guy, Eric Bogasian

There he is, wearing that great Will Gardner glower that means he’s going to do something big, maybe change the world, maybe tell Alicia he loves her, when bam, shots ring out, intended only for him. Given his history of shady legal deals, Will’s death would  leave a mystery to be solved in subsequent episodes that could challenge every character who knew or loved him. In the process, everybody on The Good Wife might think a little more deeply about the difference between living passively and meeting one’s destiny. So in a dramatically challenging way, Will’s death would have contributed to the advancement of both story and character.

And because that self-righteous guy from The Office of Public Integrity would positively drool with a new sense of purpose, the story would pick up again rather than bog down in the next episodes with everybody crying mawkishly over Will’s loss. I’m not saying the characters shouldn’t feel grief; rather, the series would be deepened and enlarged if they’re hit with one real crisis after another while they’re trying to recover. Otherwise the story just lies there dragging the pace down growing more mawkish by the second.  (I didn’t buy Diane kicking out the rich client; she’s too professional to parade her woundedness like that, and she was wrong – Will would never have lost those billings, either.)

Robert and Michelle King, creator-writers of The Good Wife

Robert and Michelle King, creator-writers of The Good Wife

It’s too bad that Kings have defended the courtroom shootout as part of the theme: “To us, there always was a tragedy at the center of Will and Alicia’s relationship,” they wrote in a letter to viewers. “The tragedy of bad timing. The brutal honesty and reality of death speaks to the truth and tragedy of bad timing for these two characters.”

Uh-huh. Let’s see now, tragedy = death, you say? As in Shakespeare or something?  Like star-crossed lovers who bemoan their fate but can’t do anything about it?

Sigh. Sometimes the writers are the last to know.

The best part about The Good Wife is that tragedy happens to Alicia and Will before the story begins. It’s the tragedy of Alicia being the loyal housewife and mother who depended on her husband Peter to keep the family secure while he ran around with prostitutes and crime figures. It’s about Will, the sensitive but ruthless attorney-on-the-make who can’t commit to anyone in a love relationship and tends to bend the law too far.

So from the start, the theme of the show poses this question: Can Alicia transform herself from the  loser wife (as people see her) standing powerlessly by her fallen husband to a self-actuating single mom who can think on her feet and have terrific orgasms on the dresser with a rehbilitated Eliot-Spitzer hubby or in a hotel suite with the charismatic-yet-ruthless mentor-with-a-heart Will?

To many viewers, thats the theme: Whether Alicia can learn to carve out her own choices in a world that’s filled with hidden agendas, political in-fighting, social back-stabbers, romantic subterfuge and government/corporate surveillance.  And if she can, what about Will, Kalinda, Diane, Eli, or Cary? Indeed, can any of us? One of the joys of watching this richly detailed story unfold is to witness this theme filtering down to even the minor characters in the show, including the shy new law partner (Nathan Lane), the attorney who exploits his own disability (Michael J. Fox), the possibly autistic fixer (Carrie Preston), Peter’s ethics consultant with the too-big lips (Melissa George),  Eli Gold’s far-too-young love interest (America Ferrera), and dozens of others, all struggling to define themselves as independent players in a world of conformists.

Will's own deus ex machina, Elsbeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston)

Will’s own deus ex machina, Elsbeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston)

But i think it’s Alicia’s children who could have played a key role about Will’s future with Alicia when unfortunately the Kings killed him off.   Zach and Grace were just  beginning to realize that Will was their mother’s terrible secret, the Guy Who Isn’t Dad. They were suspicious of him, and he was awkward around them.  How intriguing it would have been if Will happened to  help Zach in a dispute with police, or represented a young Christian minister whom born-again Grace idolized. Then Will, the famously shy and tongue-tied adult when he was around Alicia’s children, could have begun to make a commitment for the first time in his life for the betterment of another human being — not just a love interest (Alicia) but young people he found valuable in his own life and in the world.

That commitment could have challenged the kids’ limited understanding of moral issues and forced Alicia to confront her own fears about what kind of “good” mother and “good” wife she would continue to be.  Then, just when everybody was in the grip of life-changing events, Will would get killed, and the more dubious his legal situation at that moment, the better.

A second scenario lost in the Shootout, Anyone? debacle involves the one thing Will never knew: that Alicia left Lockhart Gardner to get away from the boss/associate and partner/partner relationship problem so that she and Will could go at it in the front seat without violating company rules. Having Cary as her law partner across town, she would have been free to choose Will as a lover (or not) without worrying about client relations or Diane banging on the hood of the car. She could tell the kids the truth, decide about divorcing Peter, earn more money by poaching clients and live openly on her own terms. That, too, would be a great time to whack Will.

Some observers say that all drama is about the possibility of transformation, which is why a Greek play can still be inspiring — the god they lower from the skies is really a stand-in for ourselves. The choices made by a divine power are dangled in front of human characters every day. What made The Good Wife so engrossing was the authenticity of every choice, the rich detail with which we could see that life isn’t stagnant, that independent thought can be scary and fulfilling at the same time. That’s not lost in the shootout; it’s just weakened.

In the end, I could see somebody knocking off Will Gardner for his annoying habit of obsessively unbuttoning and rebuttoning his too-tight suit jacket every time he stands up to address the judge. James Spader did this in every episode of Boston Legal and he, too, should have been jailed for it.  Let’s hope Finn (the new love interest? so soon!) uses Velcro.

Will Gardner's too-tight suit

Will Gardner’s too-tight suit

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *