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07.13.10

TV's Scorned Political Wife

The co-creator of the Emmy-nominated The Good Wife on how writing about a betrayed politician’s wife has helped him understand the real dilemmas of the Tipper Gores of the world.

The co-creator of the Emmy-nominated The Good Wife, the CBS drama about a betrayed politician’s wife, on how writing the show helped him understand the dilemmas of the Tipper Gores of the world. The show, in its first season,  received nine Emmy nominations last week, including nods for best drama, lead actress in a drama (Margulies), and writing for a drama (Robert and Michelle King).

We started with a question. How does a political marriage stay together in the wake of sexual scandal?

That’s why we wrote The Good Wife. We wanted to know: What happens to the politician’s wife after the press conference—after her husband confesses to patronizing hookers, or masturbating in airport restrooms, or having affairs with campaign workers? What happens backstage, back home, a week later, a month later? How do they bring up kids? How do they talk to the kids about sex? How do they even wake up every morning?

Why do some apparently destabilized marriages stay together while sturdier ones fall apart? More crassly, why are Bill and Hillary together while Al and Tipper have separated?

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We really had no greater answer than: with difficulty. But we did what writers usually do when they’re too lazy to do research. We made it up. We put a character we liked—a politician’s wife—in an unusual situation and saw what happened to her. In the CBS show’s first episode, Alicia Florrick’s state’s attorney husband has been charged with not prosecuting felonies in trade for sexual favors, and is promptly convicted and imprisoned. To support their family, Alicia must return to practicing law, a career she had given up early in her marriage.

So many of the real wives of scandal—the Silda Spitzers, the Jenny Sanfords—had impressive high-powered jobs before they had kids; they then put their careers on hold to advance their husband’s career. This seemed a fascinating dynamic. An opt-out mom who gets thrown violently back into the employment pool right at the moment when public embarrassment is at its peak.

But all this really didn’t come to life for us until Julianna Margulies agreed to play the part of Alicia. It’s an especially difficult part because it’s not about extremes. She is a woman who has subsumed her personality into her husband’s—a woman who has willingly stayed in his shadow, and now has to discover her true identity. It’s a part more about looks than lines.

It’s also a part that has become essentially collaborative. We write scripts, and then watch the dailies, and realize, oh, that’s what we really meant. We’re quick to take credit for it, but in fact an actor’s interpretation suddenly finds what the scene or line or gesture is really about.

In the first season, there was a scene in which Alicia kisses her boss (played by Josh Charles), then goes home and, out of guilt, sleeps with her philandering husband (played by Chris Noth). It was a good sequence: abrupt, surprising, a bit edgy. But then Julianna took all the same lines and actions and turned it into something darker: a comment on female sexuality. Alicia, in Julianna’s interpretation, went home and used her husband: used him sexually the same way he used his prostitutes. It was a revelation. And so we started writing toward this: writing toward a wife who continues to use her husband sexually.

(Oddly, most articles about actors praise them for the stuff they make up: the ad-libbed jokes, the created piece of business. They praise actors for exercising not their craft, but somebody else’s. But what’s really exciting is when an actor controls a narrative purely through the exercise of her craft.)

Through this collaboration, we found the first question that kicked off the series has metamorphosed into something more current (and something to fuel the second season). Why do some apparently destabilized marriages stay together while sturdier ones fall apart? More crassly, why are Bill and Hillary together while Al and Tipper have separated?

It’s become the source of debate in the writers’ room, a debate that changes with each week’s news. The first assumption is that many seemingly happy non-political marriages fall apart in middle age. But then the masseuse allegations against Al Gore come out and that leads us to an argument about their truth or falsity—which finally leads to a discussion of how hard it is to hold onto marriage when people, like us, discuss the truth or falsity of such allegations.

So how does a political marriage survive all this?

It helps, we found, for a couple to have a common enemy: in the case of the Clintons, a vast right-wing conspiracy; in our fictional world, the current state’s attorney (played by Titus Welliver); he destroyed Alicia’s husband’s career, but also destroyed Alicia’s suburban bliss.

It helps for them to share a common goal and interest (political power, fighting hunger). It helps if the couple is a greater force together than apart. It helps if they have kids. And it helps to be worried about a secondary scandal from a divorce or separation. In our fictional world, Alicia is so worried about the public embarrassment of the scandal scarring her kids she shrinks from dragging them back into the public square with a divorce.

But, the real answer is nothing more brilliant than that marriage is a mysterious institution, and political marriages have the added burden of public misinterpretation. The loving action is interpreted as political machination. Political machination interpreted as love. The photos of Bill and Hillary “caught” dancing together on a Virgin Island’s beach becomes a political Rorschach test: how much is fiction; how much true; and does it have to be either/or?

And that’s where Alicia finds herself: Does it have to be either/or? In a world where politics seeps into everything—sexual politics, office politics, the politics of the law—who cares whether outsiders think you’re being genuine or not?

So we’re charging on with our fictional history, keeping one eye on real events while keeping the other eye on how Julianna Margulies plays out this woman’s life: a woman trying to decide whether to stay in a marriage or leave it, and realizing that her life is tied up in politics, and that all her private decisions have public and political repercussions. We constantly ask ourselves in the writers' room: Will she end up like Hillary or Tipper?

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Robert King is the executive producer and co-creator (with his wife, Michelle) of The Good Wife . The Kings also created the ABC drama In Justice . Previously, Robert wrote and produced a dozen feature films, including Vertical Limit and Red Corner . He also wrote and directed two Wonderful World of Disney movies, Principal Takes a Holiday and Angels in the Infield .