TV’s speed-plotting trend: ‘The Good Wife’ Sunday shocker proves anyone can go, anytime

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Before this episode of your favorite TV show takes off, fasten your seatbelts and do not stow your mobile electronic devices. You’ll need them to tweet about all the upcoming OMG moments.

Speed plotting has never been so en vogue on the small screen, as more television series show their willingness to kill off major characters well before season finales, burn through story at a breakneck pace and shape their plots in the form of a twisty pretzel.

Sunday’s bombshell of an episode on “The Good Wife” (spoilers ahead) is the latest — and one of the greatest — examples of the bullish, bullet-fast storytelling that’s become the hallmark of some of television’s best dramas.

With virtually no foreshadowing, no lengthy build-up and miraculously, no leaks, the CBS drama on Sunday did away with its male lead, Will Gardner (Josh Charles). His client went on a shooting rampage in the Cook County courtroom and all of a sudden — boom! — the game changed.

“Years ago, you would never, ever kill a major character, and the rule was if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it,” CBS entertainment chief Nina Tassler told TV critics at their winter meeting, around the same time Sunday’s explosive “Good Wife” episode was being filmed in New York.

Tassler had been talking about two other CBS shows, “Person of Interest” and “The Mentalist,” which also lost major characters earlier this season.

“I think that’s a reflection of how much we’ve changed,” she said, “how much the business changes and really supporting the producers and getting behind the creative changes that they want to make, albeit sometimes very dramatic.”

With big risks can come big rewards in today’s fractionalized, highly competitive television landscape that’s made it all the more challenging for a show to garner widespread attention. Aggressive, fast-paced storytelling can propel series into must-see-TV territory. The programs become catnip for viewers who don’t want to be left out of the water-cooler discussion — both virtual and real.

“The Good Wife” showrunners Robert and Michelle King had no choice but to get rid of Gardner; Charles reportedly wanted out of the series. (The actor will be on “The Late Show with David Letterman” tonight on CBS to discuss his decision. Watch a clip of that interview below.) But the Kings did have a choice as to how to get rid of him. He could have followed in the footsteps of another one of Julianna Margulies’ on-screen lovers, Doug Ross (George Clooney) in “ER,” and relocated to Seattle. Instead, they opted for a more explosive turn of events.

In a letter to fans posted on the network’s website, the Kings explained that death “created a new dramatic ‘hub’ for the show.”

“Will’s death in many ways becomes a hub for the whole series, violently spinning everybody in new directions,” they wrote.

No TV show embraces new directions or puts its plot’s pedal to the metal quite like “Scandal,” which also offed a major character last week. ABC’s ratings and social media darling has helped fuel the speed-plotting trend, something “The Good Wife” has subscribed to more than ever in this season.

That’s not to say “The Good Wife” has been burning through story the way, say “Breaking Bad” did in its near-perfect final run. Or the way “Homeland” did when it was at its best.

That’s also not to say speed-plotting is a mandatory ingredient for a modern TV hit. See the slow burn that is HBO’s “True Detective.”

But in its fifth and finest season, “The Good Wife” has hit its stride — and that stride is faster than usual.

The season’s fifth episode, “Hitting the Fan,” felt like a breathless sprint as the law firms Lockhart/Gardner and Florrick/Agos scrambled to divide and conquer.

The series’ 100th episode aired not long after. It opened with Lockhart/Gardner investigator Kalinda (Archie Punjabi) racing through the fictional streets of Chicago as her car’s speedometer approached 100 mph, a fitting metaphor for the pace of much of this season, especially in the fall.

Sunday’s shocker came at just the right time to add a jolt of excitement to the drama, whose previous season’s ratings had been struggling by CBS standards. “The Good Wife” still isn’t pulling in the eyeballs it once was, but preliminary Nielsen data from Sunday at least showed an uptick in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic.

In other good news for “The Good Wife:” Will Gardner was trending on Twitter.

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