TIME Television

‘Women in Comedy’ Isn’t a New Thing — Here’s Proof

Lucille Ball
The May 26, 1952, cover of TIME TIME

Lucille Ball was making 'em laugh before Tina Fey was a twinkle in her parents' eyes

It’s obvious that women in comedy are having a good couple of years, with names like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy and Amy Schumer often dominating discussion of the art — but even as those funny females get their due, it’s worth remembering that a woman was already dominating the field more than 60 years ago.

When I Love Lucy premiered on this day, Oct. 15, in 1951, TIME’s TV listings acknowledged as a “a triumph of bounce over bumbling material,” an “engagingly” funny show starring a good actress and her “adequate” husband. Yet within four months it was the fourth most popular TV show in the United States; within another three months, it was number one. As TIME reported in May of 1952, the show set a world record as “the first regularly scheduled TV program to be seen in 10 million U.S. homes” on the strength of well-written scripts and high-quality slapstick. The show’s estimated total audience consisted of more than 30 million people, or nearly a fifth of the whole population of the country.

In reaching that level of success, Lucille Ball dethroned several established — and male — comedians. As TIME explained in a 1952 cover story about the star:

An ex-model and longtime movie star (54 films in the past 20 years), Lucille Ball is currently the biggest success in television. In six months her low-comedy antics, ranging from mild mugging to baggy-pants clowning, have dethroned such veteran TV headliners as Milton Berle and Arthur Godfrey. One of the first to see the handwriting on the TV screen was Funnyman Red Skelton, himself risen to TV’s top ten. Last February, when he got the award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences as the top comic of the year, Skelton walked to the microphone and said flatly: “I don’t deserve this. It should go to Lucille Ball.”

Ball got her start as a model who went by the name Diane Belmont (after Belmont Park Race Track) and later as a contract player at RKO studio, at which point she took on her trademark redheaded look. Though she started out making $50 a week in her RKO days, I Love Lucy was estimated to have grossed about $1 million during its first season.

Even though she was an undisputed success, Ball — like so many of today’s comediennes — still had to contend with set expectations of what a female comedian should be or look like. Her past as a model set her apart, as fans coveted her clothes as well as her sense of humor, and she was elevated above her colleagues by the fact that she looked sexy, not funny. However, coverage of I Love Lucy indicates that there was actually less preoccupation with her gender than there is when it comes to today’s stars, even though the character she portrayed might seem more stereotypically constrained by gender than today’s TV characters are. Critics were surprised that this one family sitcom was so much more beloved than all the other sitcoms on the air, but that surprise wasn’t because the star was a woman. Ball’s skill at physical comedy was compared to Charlie Chaplin’s, and her ability wasn’t subject to extra qualifiers.

Which is not to say that Ball’s gender didn’t matter. Rather, she turned the only substantial difference between male comedians and female comedians into a mega Hollywood win when, in 1953, she and her I Love Lucy character both gave birth on the same day.

Read the full cover story about Lucille Ball, here in TIME’s archives: Sassafrassa, the Queen

TIME Television

Chris Rock Will Host Saturday Night Live With Prince As Musical Guest

Rock and Prince made previous appearances on SNL as a cast member and musical guest, respectively

Comedian and actor Chris Rock will host Saturday Night Live alongside musical guest Prince for its Nov. 1 show, NBC announced Tuesday on Twitter.

Rock, who began his career as a start-up comedian, rose to fame when he became a cast member of the NBC sketch comedy show in the early 1990s. Rock left the show in 1993 to join the predominantly African-American sketch comedy show In Living Color, later returning to SNL to host an episode in 1996.

It also isn’t Prince’s first time on SNL, which is celebrating its 40th season. Prince, who now performs with backing band 3rdeyegirl, first appeared on the show in 1981 to perform the song “Partyup.”

TIME Television

Christina Aguilera’s Return to The Voice Doesn’t Make Sense

Christina Aguilera
Christina Aguilera performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans on Friday, May 2, 2014. (Photo by Barry Brecheisen/Invision/AP) Barry Brecheisen—Barry Brecheisen/Invision/AP

The pop star returns home, but her over-the-top image has never fit in on reality TV

There’s nothing like the original. Christina Aguilera, one of the inaugural coaches on NBC’s The Voice, is to return to the show next season following a maternity leave, replacing substitute judge Gwen Stefani. Pharrell Williams is to remain in place as a judge following the departure of Cee Lo Green.

It’s a boon for Aguilera, since a (rotating) seat at the table is a powerful promotional opportunity for any artist; it’s helped Williams, already famous for songs like “Happy,” become better known as a personality, and has further vitalized the careers of fellow coaches Blake Shelton and Adam Levine. But Shelton and Levine’s act was scaled for a reality show. The two of them seem, for all their success and recording-industry experience, like pals that might very well come over for a beer. Something has never quite connected with Aguilera, who in her early years on the show was better known for baroque costumes than for a “likable” personality. Aguilera, pouting and vamping as her co-stars tossed jokes over her head, failed to do what Jennifer Lopez, a female pop star as iconic as Aguilera herself, had managed on American Idol — to seem approachable.

There’s great camp value in Aguilera’s self-consciousness as she fans herself or purses her lips in response in reply to a performance; she has the awareness of the camera’s gaze that befits a pop star who’s been making hits since she was a teen. But her fun staginess isn’t in line with the chill, lo-fi characteristics that tend to make a relatable star. Perhaps that’s why, unlike Shelton and Levine, Aguilera’s been unable to convert her time on a huge hit show into commercial success; she’d previously taken a season off, in 2013, to promote her album Lotus, widely perceived as a commercial failure.

Aguilera has always been a bizarre fit for a show whose very conceit is that vocal performance is more important than image. The pop star’s own performances on the show (contestants aside, the coaches are and always have been the stars of The Voice) were competent if poorly judged in just how much she deployed her signature melisma. They were also reliant on costuming and weird spectacle to the point of incoherence. Aguilera’s Voice performances, like her duet with Lady Gaga, suffer from a labored-over diva act that runs entirely counter to the earthiness and humility of the aspirant singers on The Voice. Perhaps her time away will have brought her back to earth.

TIME Television

Why The Walking Dead Is So Brutal — and So Popular

AMC's gruesome zombie drama sets another ratings record, proving that on TV, extreme is the new mainstream.

This article contains spoilers. Click here to reveal them.

They just keep coming, more and more, as if rising from the very earth. Not zombies–Walking Dead viewers.

The season premiere of the, um, staggeringly popular horror drama set a new viewing record, once again: 17.3 million viewers, before we even count up DVR recordings and encores (which brought its viewership up to 28 million last season). 2.5 million more adults under 50 watched it than Sunday-night football. It may end the week the most-watched series on TV, period.

In other words: what is arguably TV’s most relentlessly disturbing and violent drama is also arguably its most popular. Extreme is the new mainstream.

It’s not as if we’ve never seen a popular horror show before. Scary stories are ingrained in our culture. The Walking Dead, though, is not just gory. It’s grim–unrelentingly, punishingly (which is not to say unentertainingly) grim. It kills beloved characters; it kills children; it gives very little reason to hope that, in the long run, any human will end up anything but a walker or meat for walkers.

And as the season 5 premiere proved, it’s morally and philosophically punishing too. When our band of survivors fought their way out of Terminus, “No Sanctuary” didn’t just give you the thrill of seeing them defeat cannibalistic monsters. It showed that those cannibals were themselves survivors, once an idealistic band who were taken captive, brutalized and systemically raped after they trusted the wrong group of refugees. The Walking Dead–TV’s most popular show by many measures–had you cheer for an escape, then revealed it as the final, if forgivable, act in an unspeakable tragedy.

It used to be, in TV, that you had mainstream entertainment and then you had edgy entertainment. Mainstream hits, generally, offered familiarity and security. They might be about terrible things–crime, or even, like M*A*S*H, war–but they would leave the audience with something to feel good about: warmth or hope or laughs. It might be violent, but good would prevail over evil, love over despair, and so on. Deep, dark, disturbing downers were a niche product at best.

The Walking Dead, on the other hand, is a nightmare–which millions of people want to visit every week. So what gives? I see a few factors:

* Nothing is really mainstream anymore. You have to look at any ratings story today in the context of shrinking audiences generally. With more entertainment choices, nothing gets as many viewers now: excepting the Super Bowl, the biggest shows today don’t get what American Idol did 10 years ago, or, hell, even a mediocre success 20 years ago. The number-one show the week ending Oct. 5, NCIS, had an 11.8 rating (almost 19 million viewers)–a figure that, in the 1994-95 season, would have put it in a solid 29th place. There are no monster hits that everyone watches now, so a huge hit among a certain group can top everything. And in that regard…

* The youngs love their zombies! If The Walking Dead is a surprisingly big hit overall, in viewers under 50–also known as the chief reason advertisers pay money for ads–it is stupendous. Among those viewers, New York magazine’s Joe Adalian notes, it had almost double the rating of the next-highest-rated scripted show last week, CBS’s The Big Bang Theory. It’s huge enough in the youth vote to top everything in an era of lower ratings. But it’s not just the young, because…

* America loves dark. Yes, The Walking Dead may have the most video-game splatter of anything on TV. But all those CBS dramas with their audiences, um, of a certain age? They’re murder central, and not quaint Angela Lansbury-style mysteries but–in shows like Criminal Minds and Stalker–truly ugly stories of sadistic, often sexually charged violence that imply we all live in a sick, sad world filled with predators. Gone are the days when Grandma and Grandpa warmed up with wholesome entertainments like The Waltons; family dramas like Parenthood are essentially niche entertainments now. After all…

* These are dark times. Look, I resist over-psychoanalyzing the American public on the basis of one hit TV show or two. I don’t think that “the zeitgeist” anticipated years ago that, say, there would be an ebola outbreak in 2014 and prepared The Walking Dead to resonate with it. But: if there is no such thing as a time without bad news, there’s a specific cast to the bad news of today. Often, it’s about systemic collapse, or the threat of it: pandemics, global financial crises, climate change and rising sea levels, the threat of mass-casualty terrorist events. In one way or another, we’re constantly asked to envision how we and our own would thrive if everything went to hell and we lost all our societal supports. It’s disturbing; in some way it all comes down to generating fear by selling fear. But it does sell. In the same way that cop shows like Starsky and Hutch or SWAT let viewers vicariously experience urban crime in the 1970s, an apocalyptic drama lets us face the end of the world once a week and live. But not just any apocalyptic drama, because…

* Authenticity pays off. If it were as easy as slapping up one end-of-the-world drama after another–and TV has done that lately–the Nielsen top 10 would be full of apocalypse serials and Revolution would be enjoying a long life on NBC. But a lot of these efforts, especially on broadcast networks, have felt sanitized and tentative. I haven’t always loved The Walking Dead as a drama–its characters can be one-note, and its ambitions as a character drama can get lost amid the kill-quotient-of-the-week. But I will say this for it: it freaking commits. It’s dedicated to showing the raw implications of its premise, right down to the splattering of heads and gobbling of guts. (See also its fellow cable hit, Game of Thrones.) Sure, it allows us the distance of knowing that most of its “kills” are walkers, who are already dead; but its living suffer too, often horribly.

And that matters in an era where entertainment is no longer massaged to be palatable to audiences of every age and taste, as it was in the three-channel days of the 20th century. In a niche-ified era, every niche can be more, and more extremely, itself. If I can see unvarnished darkness in the world of video games, or movies, or novels, I expect to be able to see it in TV too.

It was, maybe, another dark, brutal, popular cable drama–Breaking Bad–that put this modern mindset best. In an age of extremes, no one wants to settle for half-measures.

Read next: Everything You Need to Know Before Season 5 of The Walking Dead

TIME Television

Dancing With the Stars Watch: The Switch-Up

CARRIE ANN INABA, JULIANNE HOUGH, BRUNO TONIOLI
Adam Taylor—ABC

Jessie J is a very harsh temporary judge

Welcome back to Dancing With the Stars, where each week the stars cinch up their spandex and hoof it on the dance floor in the hopes of currying America’s favor and a shot at a Mirror Ball Trophy. This week we are being treated to the Switch-Up. No, the dancing reality show has not been preempted by either the Jason Bateman movie, The Switch, nor the Jason Bateman movie, The Change-Up, nor Teen Wolf Too nor, sadly, anything to do with Jason Bateman whatsoever. Instead, all the spray-tanned and hair-sprayed stars switch partners, and it’s supposed to kick up the drama, but in reality just kicks up the dramatics.

Since Len Goodman is still supervising the sambas on the U.K.’s Strictly Come Dancing, there’s still an empty seat at the judges’ table. This week that seat is filled by singer Jessie J, who introduces herself to the viewing audience by singing her hit “Bang Bang” without the assistance of Nicki Minaj or Ariana Grande, before taking her seat at the judges’ table.

Here’s what happened on Dancing With the Stars:

Antonio Sabato Jr. and Allison Holker: The professional hunk teamed up with the new pro for a Bollywood routine, which is sort of unfair because the judges never know what to do with Bollywood numbers and always judge them harshly. Antonio delivered the goods, but he’s no Akshay Kumar, if you know what I mean. 28/40, with guest judge Jessie J lowballing with a 6. (Tom Bergeron helpfully suggested having someone else start her car for her as a safety precaution.)

Bethany Mota and Mark Ballas: One of TIME’s most influential teens admitted that she does not know what “swag” is, but promised to try and bring it to her hip-hop routine. The duo busted some moves to Usher’s “She Came to Give It to You,” and Bruno Tonioli thought she did a fantastic job and is “blossoming with confidence,” which is something only Bruno can say. Jessie J thought she “attacked it,” and Julianne Hough took the opportunity to diss her brother. 32/40, which Mark considered an unfairly poor score.

Jonathan Bennett and Peta Murgatroyd: Jonathan was still reeling from his low scores last week, but was ready to rumble with Peta with a fierce … jitterbug. They performed a fast-paced 1950s-inspired routine that was filled with lifts and kicks, but after Jonathan almost dropped Peta on her head, they lost a little luster. Carrie Ann Inaba thought there were moments of brilliance, but many parts were off. Jessie J and Julianne competed for harshest critique with Jessie J just eking out a win. Jonathan was shocked, but should not have been what with the whole almost dropping Peta thing. 24/30.

Alfonso Ribeiro and Cheryl Burke: Expectations were riding high for Alfonso after he got a perfect score last week for his Carlton. This week, he didn’t get to do a dance he originated, but a traditional flamenco. Cheryl choreographed a “fully professional” routine for him, which he was able to pull off. Julianne said it was the first partnership she believed in tonight. It was so good Jessie J “turned American.” 34/40.

Janel Parrish and Artem Chigvintsev: Janel and Artem set out to make their partners Lea and Val jealous, and luckily they were assigned a burlesque routine, which helped them meet their goal. Janel wore sparkly bustier and underpants, while Artem went for the suspenders and no shirt look for their sultry routine set to a Jessie J song (awkward). Val hammed it up on the sidelines and Janel apologized to her dad for the overly sexy routine. Julianne thought it was not “authentic” burlesque, whatever that is, but Bruno dismissed her criticism, because there’s no such thing as “too sexy.” Jessie J thought it was all hilarious, because she wrote that song about her mom (more awkward!). 33/40.

Michael Waltrip and Witney Carson: The producers let Michael’s inner dad out, by assigning him a disco routine with the youngest pro on staff for the ultimate Dad-portunity. The routine was a silly trifle, but the judges were really harsh in their critique. Julianne announced that it was getting awkward to watch him continue in the competition. By the time he made it off the dance floor, Michael looked upset, but then he made a Drake reference proving that even when he is down he is still the ultimate dad. 20/40, which clearly broke Michael’s heart.

Tommy Chong and Emma Slater: After getting some tips from Peta for how to navigate Tommy’s “memory issues,” Emma choreographed a mambo to Musical Youth’s “Pass the Dutchie” while clad in a Rasta-colored bikini. As much as the producers cast Michael as Ultimate Dad, Tommy gets the full stoner treatment. Jessie J liked the routine, but Julianne thought he looked “tired” and thought he was “running out of material.” 23/40.

Sadie Robertson and Derek Hough: After spending a week on the Robertson family farm, Derek and Sadie had plenty of time to perfect their Charleston. The chaste routine was one of the first dance of the night to garner almost universally positive remarks. 36/40, which is the highest score of the night.

Lea Thompson and Val Chmerkovskiy: Lea wisely reminded Val that she’s “not Janel” before they got ready for their “Broadway” routine. (Is “Broadway” really a dance style?) For the performance, Lea dressed as a nurse and Val was inexplicably dressed as an old man with a walker. While not completely clear, it appeared that Lea was a naughty nurse hitting on her patients at a nursing home. Tom dubbed it “Mama’s Family the Musical,” while Bruno made a Cocoon reference. Julianne thought Lea felt “a little unsure,” but that it was generally a fun routine. Carrie Ann called it “wackadoodle” and Bruno thought it was a treat. Val finally explained that it was the home for retired ballroom dancers with “a little bit of swag,” which almost made sense. 34/40.

The Leaderboard: Alfonso Ribeiro is in the lead with 74 points, followed by Sadie Robertson and Lea Thompson with 73 points each. At the bottom are Jonathan Bennett with 48 and Michael Waltrip with 45.

Best Reason to Come Back Next Week: Pitbull will be on the show to bust a move while screaming, “Dale!”

Worst Reason to Come Back Next Week: Pitbull will be on the show to bust a move while screaming, “Dale!”

TIME Television

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon Developing Thriller for Syfy Network

The Good Will Hunting bros have a new project, Incorporated, in the works

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are headed to the land of Sharknados.

The long-time friends and frequent collaborators are working with cable network Syfy to develop Incorporated, a spy thriller about a man trying to stand up to a futuristic world where big corporations rule, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Ted Humphrey (who has written and produced for The Good Wife) will be the showrunner. Affleck and Damon are among the drama’s producers.

Affleck is currently starring in the marital thriller Gone Girl, which is the number one movie in the country for the second week in a row.

[THR]

TIME Music

Watch a Mesmerizing Clip of Lorde Singing Her South Park Song

Ya ya ya ya ya ya

One of TIME’s most influential teens is taking her not-so-flattering South Park spoof in stride. According to a recent episode of the show, Lorde as we know her is not actually Lorde, but instead a grown, mustachioed adult male named Randy Marsh, who doesn’t really sing so much as he goes “ya ya ya ya ya” a lot. (Guess we have to take her off our list.)

But during an interview with New Zealand’s TV3, Lorde revealed that not only had she watched her South Park portrayal, she also enjoyed the song “Lorde” sings. “We actually, in my hotel room, went ‘Ya ya ya ya ya I’m Lorde! Ya ya ya!’ for like an hour, because that’s what they do on the episode,” the 17-year-old explained. And from that interview, a generous user of the Internet created this oddly catchy YouTube video, which, to no one’s surprise, has already been given the dance remix treatment.

TIME Television

5 Things to Know About Jane the Virgin

Gina Rodriguez, Photographed in Los Angeles on October 3, 2014.
Gina Rodriguez, Photographed in Los Angeles on October 3, 2014. Ramona Rosales for TIME

Gina Rodriguez, the star of the CW's new comedy, talks to TIME about the telenovela-inspired show

The new CW comedy Jane the Virgin, premiering tonight, has one of the most over-the-top premises on television right now. In the show, a religious 23-year-old named Jane is accidentally artificially inseminated when a frazzled doctor mistakes her for a fertility patient. Complicating the situation are the reactions from Jane’s grandmother (a conservative Catholic horrified by the news), her boyfriend (who’s eager to get married) and the accidental donor (who has a surprising history with Jane).

In the latest issue of TIME, Jane the Virgin‘s breakout star Gina Rodriguez told us all about her character and what viewers can expect from the show. Here are a few things to know before you tune in.

Rodriguez only takes roles she feels portray Latina women in a positive light.
The actress says Jane the Virgin was love at first script. “To read a story about a young girl where her ethnicity wasn’t at the forefront, where her dual identity was so integrated in life that it didn’t feel like a separate conversation, was such a breath of fresh air,” Rodriguez says. The Chicago-born daughter of Puerto Rican parents says she has turned down high-profile roles when she needed the money because she thought the characters were too stereotypical. “I have fought so hard to not take roles,” Rodriguez says. “I had to fight [myself] like, ‘Gina, you can’t pay rent. Are you really going to say no?'”

Rodriguez made an instant impression on producers
Executive producer Jennie Snyder Urman says “there was just nothing to change” about Rodriguez’s audition for the show. “You expect it to be a really long search, and to see someone come in, literally the third person [to audition], it was amazing,” says Urman, who remembers rushing home to tell her husband about Rodriguez’s talent. “She’s 100% genuine and 100% fun. Sometimes I feel like I’m hanging out with one of my college friends.”

Jane the Virgin features an international cast
“The integration of having stars from other countries here is really cool,” Rodriguez says. Jane’s father, for example, is played by Mexican actor Jaime Camil. Colombian crooner Juanes and Mexican pop star Paulina Rubio are both set to guest star. And Rodriguez is hoping the show can also snag Daniela Alvarado, the lead actress from Juana la Virgen, the Venezuelan telenovela upon which Jane the Virgin is loosely based. “We got in touch with each other very early on,” Rodriguez says. “I love her. She’s fantastic. She promotes our show and loves us, and we’re obviously praying that we have some awesome crossover where she’ll join our show for a few episodes.”

The show is in capable hands
As a former Gilmore Girls writer, Urman knows a thing or two about crafting great multigenerational families for the small screen. And fellow executive producer Ben Silverman knows a thing or two about adapting foreign TV shows from his work on Ugly Betty (also based on a telenovela) and The Office. “[Silverman] saw the title and was like, ‘I want that one,'” Rodriguez says. “He literally picked it off of the title.” When Urman was approached, she was a little more hesitant. “I got the logline and was like, ‘Whoa, I can’t do this. What?‘” she says. “It just seemed so outrageous.”

The show strives to be universal
Rodriguez hates it when people call Jane the Virgin “a Latino show.” “It’s mind-blowing to me,” she says. “Why, because I’m brown-skinned? It’s not a Latino show — it’s a human show! We talk about love, we talk about sex, we talk about dreams, we talk about failure, we talk about life. There’s nothing about that that’s different from any other ethnicity.” And though it has some sensitive subject matter, Rodriguez hopes interested viewers with strong beliefs about sex and virginity aren’t turned off by the show’s frank discussions. “There is no commentary on right and wrong,” she says. “[We're] not saying we’re pro-life, we’re pro-choice, those who are not pro-life are going to hell, nobody’s commenting on anything.”

TIME Television

Bill Hader’s Saturday Night Live Was the Least Watched Episode Ever

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader on Saturday Night Live on Oct. 11, 2014.
Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader on Saturday Night Live on Oct. 11, 2014. Dana Edelson—NBC/Getty Images

The beloved sketch comic can't shore up ratings for his ailing alma mater

So much for the power of a familiar face.

Bill Hader, whose return to Saturday Night Live as “Stefon” and other famous characters was widely heralded across the Internet, was not much of a ratings draw as a host. His episode, airing over the weekend, tied Charlize Theron’s turn as host in May as the lowest-rated SNL showing ever, both overall and in the prized 18-49 demographic.

This seems, at first blush, surprising. Hader and beloved co-star Kristen Wiig used the episode to revive character favorites from party promoter Stefon to senile reporter Herb Welch to Wiig’s Kathie Lee Gifford impression. But it’s the very nature of their appearances, treated as special and rare, that may account for why SNL viewership has dropped off.

This isn’t just the usual attrition accountable to DVRs and next-day online streaming: Saturday Night Live first saw its normally steady ratings falter last season, after the departures of Hader, Andy Samberg, Fred Armisen, and Jason Sudeikis. The show’s 40th season may continue to look shaky until it finds a new Bill Hader, rather than just bringing back the one who’s moved on.

TIME Television

The Good Wife Watch: The So-Bad-She’s-Good Wife

"Oppo Research"
Jeff Neumann/CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

As Alicia's political ambition grows, a show that started out saying that it's no easy thing to be a wife is now exploring how it's no simple thing to be good.

Brief spoilers for Sunday’s The Good Wife follow:

The Good Wife began its run, just over five years ago, as a political legal drama that dealt heavily with the “Wife” half of its title: would Alicia Florrick stand by her ambitious politician husband, about to mount a return run for state’s attorney, after he’d been disgraced in a sex scandal? The show has covered a lot of ground since then, but with “Oppo Research,” the best episode yet of the young new season, it’s come around to being a different kind of political drama, concerned with whether Alicia can stand her own run for state’s attorney.

And even more fascinating, it’s increasingly interested in investigating the “Good” half of its title.

The Good Wife has long been a morally complex series, dealing with the ethical gymnastics of characters we identify with but can’t always completely support. But the spectacular opening act of “Oppo,” with Alicia’s known and unknown secrets laid out by Steven Pasquale’s consultant, framed this in a new way. First, it asked, going point by point: how would Alicia’s personal and professional life look as viewed, not by sympathetic fans who have followed her story for years, but by an outside audience of voters?

Paced at the show’s typical double-time–with Grace’s friends singing Jesus hymns in the background–the interrogation crisply ran down Alicia’s political vulnerabilities, some she knew about (but maybe underestimated), some she was clueless of. (Say, Zach’s girlfriend’s abortion. Oh, that’s right: The Good Wife just dropped a teen-abortion storyline right into a primetime network drama, like it wasn’t even a thing.) And then of course there are the many professional conflicts we’re aware of, starting with Lemond Bishop, still very much a factor in this season.

The public, we’re told, sees her as “Saint Alicia.” And we the audience–maybe “Saint” is too strong a word, but the perspective of the show pushes us to empathize with her, to see her decisions in a better light. The first thing the oppo scene did was to shock us into a sense of perspective, to remind us that, all along, we’ve been watching the story of a complicated woman who’s motivated by power and security at least as much as by ideals.

The second thing it does is set in motion the rest of the episode, in which Alicia, now taking her potential run seriously, looks to set her house in order. It’s not pretty: her phone call with Zach goes from understandable anger to a brutal cutting-off, and her managing the situation with her brother may be practical, but it’s also callous. None of her actions are totally without justification, nor are they out of character; we’ve seen Alicia turn cold and massage the truth when she needs to in her legal work.

But “Oppo Research” suggests that politics may push her to be even more baldly Machiavellian–to do ugly things for the right reasons, or kinda-ugly things for the kinda-right reasons. To preserve the viability of Saint Alicia, she may need to unleash Sinner Alicia, even if we know that neither is the full picture of her.

A show that started out saying that it’s no easy thing to be a wife is now exploring how it’s no simple thing to be good. And that could just make it better than ever.

Now a quick hail of bullets:

* It’s hard to discuss the antiheroine aspects of The Good Wife without mentioning the return of the Darkness at Noon parody show-within-a-show. I’m probably in a minority among Good Wife fans, but I’ve never been a fan of them. The parody of the widely panned Low Winter Sun by one of TV’s best dramas is punching down, and like most Emperor’s New Clothes arguments–here, the Emperor’s New Dark Antihero Cable Drama–it feels self-congratulatory. But I can’t lie: I laughed at the Talking Dead parody (complete with cameo from The Americans‘ producer Joe Weisberg) and especially the Mystical Elk. Sometimes funny is its own best argument.

* The oppo-research opening scene was so structurally playful and captivating that I originally thought it would take up the entire hour, bottle-episode style–and not to knock the rest of the episode at all, but I kind of wish it had.

* Mrs. Tuned In and I know the casting patterns of The Good Wife well enough by now that, before Eli opened the door to introduce Alicia’s potential campaign manager, we played a quick round of: “What NYC stage actor will it be?” Sure enough, though you and I might know Pasquale better from Rescue Me (or, sadly, Do No Harm), he’s a Broadway veteran, most recently of The Bridges of Madison County.

* With Homeland and The Good Wife both on the air is fall, both the white- and red-wine protagonist contingents are well-represented. If Madame Secretary wants to stand out, it should give Tea Leoni’s character a taste for rosé.

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