09.21.11

Inside ‘Good Wife’ Writers’ Room

The smartest show on TV, CBS’s "The Good Wife," is back for a third season. Jace Lacob reports from the writers’ room and goes in depth with creators Robert and Michelle King.

There is an emergency session underway within the writers’ room of CBS’s critically acclaimed drama, The Good Wife, which returns for its third season on Sunday, Sept. 25.

With 48 hours to go, the writers—overseen by husband-and-wife creators Robert and Michelle King—must rewrite the latest script and untangle a Gordian knot to come up with a new procedural case for hotshot lawyer Alicia Florrick (recent Emmy Award winner Julianna Margulies) and the firm to tackle.

In the second season of the critical and ratings hit, the personal loomed large for all of the show’s characters. Alicia gave into temptation and slept with her boss, Will (Josh Charles), after years of having bad timing. Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) went to great lengths to conceal a long-buried secret—that she had, years before, slept with Alicia’s husband, Peter (Chris Noth)—in a storyline that involved baseball bats, smashed-out windows, and assaulting rival investigator Blake (Scott Porter).

With its deft plotting and character-driven storytelling, The Good Wife—this season moving to a new night and time (Sundays at 9 p.m.)—is hard-hitting drama at its best. So it’s all the more surprising that the writers’ room appears almost serene, even as the clock ticks away. This is not your typical writers’ room, a litter-strewn battlefield where exhausted scribes butt heads, argue, and quaff vast quantities of coffee. Here, on a quiet studio lot in Culver City, supervising producer Corinne Brinkerhoff—who runs the @GoodWifeWriters Twitter feed with Meredith Averill—stands at a whiteboard. Her neat handwriting is just one of many ordered particulars of the vintage room: color-coded notecards are perfectly positioned on a nearby bulletin board; whiteboards stand at the ready, bursting with plot details; and the writers—split equally between genders—around the polished mahogany table are taking turns to speak. Wait, this is an emergency meeting?

It’s midday and the staffers are calmly throwing out ideas for the case of the week of the sixth episode of the season, one that might involve sons of foreign diplomats, one a Taiwanese ambassador, and a date rape-murder case. The Kings are in attendance—Robert presides, his feet up on a nearby chair, as Michelle sneaks in to sit near him at the head of the table—and they interject to keep the discussion on track, as two writers’ assistants try dutifully to transcribe the conversation unfolding around them.

Today Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood provides inspiration; the writers use killers Dick and Perry as archetypes for the suspects in the episode’s legal case, but there is also a varied discussion of such topics as “stoplight parties,” Viagra side effects, Lady Gaga’s deal with Polaroid, exigent circumstances, All About Eve, prosecutorial bias, and the treatment of a body as a crime scene. Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s 2004 true crime documentary series, The Staircase, about the headline-grabbing Michael Peterson trial, is invoked as well. Make no mistake: these are keenly intelligent individuals, but there’s a spirit of the collective here. As the day wears on, no cracks form in the exceedingly polite exterior of these intelligent scribes, who—against all expectations—apologize when interrupting each other. Despite the high-stakes deadline, it’s a case of civility trickling down from the producers.

“That’s very typical,” says Michelle King. “When we took our daughter to Canada for the first time, she was about 9. She looked around and said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the first city I’ve ever been in where everyone’s as polite as we are.’”

This is not what you might expect from a tense drama like The Good Wife, particularly one in the midst of a story crisis. Although The Good Wife films on the opposite coast, the Kings keep their eyes on every detail. (The couple tries to get out to New York—which doubles on-screen as Chicago—once a month and keep in constant contact via a Polycom video-conferencing system for four- or five-hour “tone meetings”). Later, upstairs in the second-floor editing bay, Robert King oversees a cut of the third episode, featuring the introduction of Eddie Izzard as oily British lawyer James Thrush and the first meeting of Eli Gold (Alan Cumming) and Kalinda. He runs his hand through his hair as he focuses on every second unfolding, adjusting microexpressions, overlapping dialogue to create a naturalistic “Altman-esque” pattern, asking for a longer pause (a “mouth-pop”) before a character speaks. The messiness gives a scene a sense of verisimilitude; he instructs the editor that he wants “elegant movement” but not to “piss off the audience with too many details.”

“The audience is very forgiving with how much we do in procedural stories,” says King. But he feels as though it’s his job, and an almost holy mission, to make these courtroom scenes as interesting and lively as possible. He needn’t worry, really; the show’s devoted audience has fallen in love with the interplay of styles: at times a roman à clef, a political race, a legal showdown, a romance. It has imbued The Good Wife with an elegant unpredictability, as it smudges the lines between genres.

The personal, however, always trumps the procedural within the show. “The personal is hard to reinvent,” says Robert King. “The cases are easy to reinvent. There are so many things we want to do casewise, but Alicia’s story guides us … The only thing we’re probably a little aware of is having an equal number this year of criminal and civil cases because of the Cary (Matt Czuchry) and Peter component at the state's attorney’s office. I think we’re always following relationships, always following the personal.”

If that sphere often got sensationalized in Season 2, that was entirely intentional, says Robert King, who wanted the audience to imagine the absolute worst that Kalinda might have been capable of, only to pull things back to a decidedly personal level.

“The Blake thing got a little extravagant, but we wanted to go extravagant so people would think, Oh, with everything with Kalinda getting so operatic, it must be that she killed someone,” he says. “Then the reason she’s so frantic was very human and what was nice is that it was about Alicia.” For the Kings, however, it wasn’t an unexpected twist. “It was part of the DNA of the story,” says Michelle King. “The very first time we pitched it to CBS, that was part of the idea. We just held off for a long time in spilling it.”

“DSK was so familiar to an episode we did already, so chances are you’re not going to see it because they were ripping us off,” jokes Michelle King.

But don’t expect the Kings to try to outdo themselves in the Kalinda department this season by coming up with an even bigger story for the tough-as-nails investigator. “Topping it could be on the human level,” says Robert King. “She was a bit of a superwoman in a lot of the first year. She’d just say, ‘Open the door,’ and people would open it because they were attracted to her ... In theory, once you finally reveal Kalinda is as human as anybody else in the show, she’s not the untouchable superwoman … A lot of the things that make her dark and make her who she is, we can now explore on the human side, and not as some super–Lara Croft kind of person.”

Thematically, the third season is about taking risks, say the Kings, both for the writers and the characters. “Because of where the economy is going,” says Robert King, “I think the audience will relate” to the idea of risk. Alicia will discover that keeping her home life and her work life separate is not as easy as she anticipated. And there will be consequences for Alicia now that she and Will have slept together. (“Hopefully, a whole season’s worth,” says Michelle King.)

Plus, the show won’t shy away from tackling weighty political, social, and technological issues. Just don’t expect The Good Wife to offer an analog for Dominique Strauss-Kahn this season.

“DSK was so familiar to an episode we did already, so chances are you’re not going to see it because they were ripping us off,” jokes Michelle King. “We try to avoid anything that is so specific that, when you see it three months from now when it airs, it’s going to feel like old news.”

Likewise, the Kings killed a plot that dealt with reality television, after the suicide of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’s Russell Armstrong. “It was basically an explication of how reality TV slants reality,” says Robert King. “But [now] it’s almost an overheated current, where shows along the lines of Law & Order will probably do one. You just don’t want to be the last one in line to do the reality takeoff.”

Not that that’s dampened the spirits of the show’s writing staff, each of whom regularly brings in ideas that interest them for “filling the cupboard,” in the Kings’ parlance. Former House star Lisa Edelstein’s upcoming arc grew out of an idea Brinkerhoff brought in about two-room mediation. Other concepts percolating on the whiteboards of the writers’ room are just fun ideas, while others are based in the real world.

“A lot of the things we want to explore are esoteric and sometimes things in the news that we want to set a human face on, some involving the secret courts that are continued under Obama’s administration, [the] Muslim-Jewish conflict … racial profiling and racial bias in sentencing,” says Robert King. “We’re doing the Murdoch/News of the World thing but in a skewed way, which is about libel tourism: people going to England to sue on books.”

“We’re attracted to some medical advances that seem to have bad repercussions: you don’t think of human experimentation happening in today’s age, but to have these doctors who create something—a new pacemaker, a new heart valve, a new back-pain device—and just plant their own version into patients? We want to pursue that. Social networking is our bread and butter.” They’ll tackle the latter in an episode that looks at the growing battle between Facebook and Google+.

All of which serves to cement The Good Wife’s reputation as what some would call the “smartest drama on network TV,” implying somehow that network television as a whole is not that smart, or that cable programming is superior. Let’s be honest: it’s the smartest drama on television, period, but the Kings don’t waste a second dwelling on whether the description is a backhanded compliment.

“If anyone says anything nice, I’m delighted,” says Michelle King, sitting on the couch in the office she shares with her husband, polite as ever. “The last thing I’m going to do is parse a compliment. Please.”