Entertainment

03.09.14

The Great Marriage Behind ‘The Good Wife’

The powerhouse married showrunners piloting ‘The Good Wife’ have been expertly calling the shots together for five seasons on broadcast TV’s most acclaimed show.

It’s been more than three decades since Robert and Michelle King, The Good Wife’s married showrunners, first intertwined their professional and personal lives. Back in 1983, when Robert moved to L.A. as an aspiring playwright, he made ends meet by working at FrontRunners, an athletic shoe store around the corner. There, he crossed paths with Michelle, a part-time coworker who was about to start her senior year at UCLA. “We met each other stocking the sock wall,” recalls Robert. They soon started dating, but “we kept our relationship secret,” Robert says. “We didn’t want to deal with the pressure of the office…” “The shoe world!” Michelle pipes in, laughing. Adds Robert, “We don’t keep it a secret now!”

As if they ever could. As the powerhouse creators and showrunners behind The Good Wife, broadcast TV’s most acclaimed show (and one of the best series on broadcast or cable), the couple has expertly calling the shots together for five seasons as Alicia Florrick (Julianna Marguiles) has navigated her tenuous marriage while rising through the ranks at Lockhart/Gardner, before leaving the firm this season in a blaze of glory to start her own practice. As The Good Wife returns March 9 after a two-month hiatus (to avoid the Olympics and a slew of other recent major Sunday night events, including the Super Bowl, Oscars, and Grammys), Robert, 54, and Michelle, 51, sat down with The Daily Beast to discuss how they’ve successfully pulled off being married to their job—and each other. “If it weren’t fun,” says Michelle, “we wouldn’t be doing it.”

In person, the duo exhibits the relaxed affection of a long-time couple who are utterly at ease together, and remain delighted and amused by one another’s company. Robert tends to take the lead in responses (“I talk more and Michelle's more the sound-bite woman,” he explains), while Michelle deftly chooses her moments to interject. Case in point: “You should get to the core of the difference between us,” suggests Robert, glancing over at Michelle. “You’re Jewish and I’m Catholic.” Retorts Michelle, “Well, I didn’t know that was the core difference!” “But it’s different enough that it’s explored on the show,” says Robert. “And I’m more conservative than you are politically.”

After the Kings married in 1987, they kept their professional lives separate for nearly 15 years. Robert wrote films like Vertical Limit and Cutthroat Island, while Michelle worked in development at studios and production companies. Then in 2001, they began developing a series called The Line with director Ron Underwood. “It was about the border, very much like The Bridge now,” says Robert, who collaborated with Michelle for the first time on the project. “We wrote it together, and it was a really good process, because TV was a new language to learn, because of the five-act structure. Michelle loved structure, and I rebel against structure. We were able to work together and sit at the typewriter together, and it was fun.”

As they started The Line, Robert and Michelle had no hesitation about teaming up. “Even when we weren’t being paid as a couple, we always discussed what we were doing,” says Michelle. Explains Robert, “Also one of the good things about network TV is the speed that it is done. You get answers on things very fast. So we did know if we hated working together, it was going to be over within four months.” Yet neither of them actually thought that things would go sour. “You get a sense of these things,” says Robert. “Our personalities are close enough and yet they're not mirroring each other. And you get that sense that it would be working out fine.”

The Line never went forward, but the experience cemented Robert and Michelle’s professional partnership. They collaborated on a few other pilot scripts before creating In Justice, their 2006 ABC legal drama with Kyle MacLachlan and Jason O’Mara. During the show’s 13-episode run, the Kings learned that they needed to make some necessary adjustments to their work/home relationship. “There's a tendency with working together and being a husband-and-wife that the writing talk starts filling out every corner of your life,” says Robert. “And that was a mistake. When we'd have date night we knew that, okay, no more business talk.”

By the time they created The Good Wife in 2009, Robert and Michelle had a better sense of how to divide and conquer the showrunning duties (they were initially teamed with a more seasoned co-showrunner, Dee Johnson, who departed during the first season). “We split up the division of labor right down the middle,” says Robert, explaining that Michelle handles “wardrobe, hair, makeup, production design and taking the lead on casting.” Meanwhile, says Michelle, “Robert’s in the editing room and galloping ahead on scripts.” And they are both a regular presence in the writerss room.

Because a showrunner’s work is never done, the Kings say they can’t imagine any other way to approach their job. “Bill Prady, who runs Big Bang Theory, had a good way of talking about showrunning, which is it's the equivalent of writing and putting on a show, but also running 12 7-Eleven's in the Valley,” says Robert, “You get a call like, ‘The Slurpee machine’s out; come on down!’ There's this need to tweak and make sure everything is working that actually requires two minds.” Being able to split those duties with her husband is the best part of working together, says Michelle. “It’s a huge job. I actually don't understand how people do it singly. And when just one of a couple is doing it, I think it must be very hard that it doesn't leave enough time to be together.”

“The biggest creative argument we ever had was whether U.S. should be abbreviated with or without periods within a script.”

And the worst part of showrunning with one’s spouse? “The worst part is when we disagree, because that can be very difficult. We had fought about the Peter Bogdanovich thing. That argument went on a month and a half,” says Robert of the recent revelation that the “Peter” who fathered the unborn baby of ethics advisor Marilyn (Melissa George) was not in fact Alicia’s husband, Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), but the famous film director, who played himself in a cameo. “There was probably a way to answer that with a little more seriousness. And we had a disagreement of how silly, how much you could throw it away versus how much you could take it seriously.”

But that was far from the duo’s biggest—and oddest—clash. “I think the biggest creative argument we ever had was whether U.S. should be abbreviated with or without periods within a script,” says Michelle. “I mean, it gets down to that level! I think it went on for two days, and I could not tell you which of us had which position or where it landed.” Adds Robert, “Which is the advantage of [being on a] network. There are so many decisions that have to be made, you can't really fight over one for very long.”

Regardless of the argument, when Robert and Michelle do disagree on something, they keep their differences behind closed doors. “One thing we did learn, in front of a group you're a united front no matter what,” says Robert. “Because if they think they can play Mommy off against Daddy, it's a real problem. So whatever decision’s made, it just kind of goes, even if the other person disagrees with it.”

Nor do they play good showrunner/bad showrunner. “I mean, there will be times when one of us will be in one room dealing with one issue and the other will be in the other,” says Michelle, “but there's not a nice one and a less nice one.” Well, most of the time, at least: “When we've had talent issues, one of us usually deals with it,” says Robert. “So if that gets contentious, then the other person can come along later and say, ‘Okay, now it's worked out. We're all good. Don't worry about what Robert said.’ We've had a few circumstances like that, where we've had to deal with talent on the East Coast, and it's usually just one of us who does it so the other one is kept clean.”

Unlike in the early days of their work partnership, Robert and Michelle no longer have strict rules about avoiding office talk at home. “It flows everywhere, but not in a bad way,” says Michelle. “It's what we, or at least what I, would want to be talking about.” Especially given that their daughter, 14, now also contributes ideas to the show. “She really likes the process and she likes influencing with music, she gives us music,” says Robert. “So ground rules would be more essential if we didn't think Sophia was embracing what she sees of the process.”

They freely admit that their working relationship might be much more strained were The Good Wife not so beloved by its fans. “Shows that are not connecting with their audience are just as hard to make as shows that are,” says Robert. “So you'd have all the work, but you'd also have another layer of angst, which is a network or studio that was pressuring you or making calls like, ‘Why did you make this decision?’ We haven't had that kind of dustup with CBS at all, so I have a feeling that makes this an unusual situation.”

When there have been major issues—like last season’s decision to jettison the instantly-toxic Season 4 storyline involving Kalinda’s (Archie Panjabi) estranged husband, Nick—they’ve confronted them together. “That was probably our most tense moment on the show,” says Robert. (“But not with each other!” Michelle quickly adds.) “Even with that, you and I were in complete agreement with what we had to do. And then it was like okay, how do we accomplish this, and who do we have to talk to? There were a lot of people that we had to get on the same page with what our plan was to get around it, not just within house, not just within the actors, but also the studio and network: this is how we're planning to approach it.”

In the end, Robert and Michelle feel that working side by side as showrunners has ultimately been beneficial for their marriage, and not just because it’s the only way they’d ever see each other otherwise. “I'll say this: we've had some disasters in our personal life. And the show offers a healthy distraction sometimes from that, where you feel like we can't let that eat away at us because we have this deadline,” says Robert. “The deadline, as awful as it is, makes you get over whatever personal problems there are. I would say in that way it has been an improvement on marriage, because I have a feeling that whatever those disasters were, they probably would've had more resonance and a little more difficulty in our private life if there wasn't like, ‘Okay, we’ve got to get over that, because we have to start working on script number 18.’”

While they realize that working together on a show that was built on the lead character’s strained marriage might raise question about their own union, the Kings insist that the old adage that writers always write about what they know doesn’t always hold true. “This would be an exception to that rule!” insists Michelle. Referencing Peter’s dalliances with prostitutes that were uncovered the pilot, she adds, “It’s not like we looked back and said, ‘Oh, that hooker thing!’”

“If anything, it’s probably helped,” the show’s fictional marriage between Alicia and Peter, says Robert. “The show tries to walk a thin line between how much it's a good idea to divorce the schmuck and how much is it a good idea to stay with the schmuck. And I think our happiness—that we work well together—has allowed that conservative side of the show. The idea that maybe a married couple should work it out has risen. If our relationship weren't as good, it probably would be like, ‘Throw the bum out!’” Does that mean if Alicia and Peter divorce next season, viewers should worry about the state of the Kings’s union? Says Robert after a long laugh, “Yeah, poor Robert and Michelle!”

The couple’s solid marriage also “allows us to explore issues” on The Good Wife, says Robert. “They're just not the issues at the core of our relationship, but there's a lot of observations we have of, our daughter’s in high school now and a lot of her friends have divorced parents. So I mean exploring the idea of how much do our kids have interest in their parents staying together. The stability that we're—see, all of this is terrible. It might end tomorrow! [“Yes,” agrees Michelle]—but the stability that we feel now allows us to use that as a place to look out at other relationships around us and either satirize and comment on them, or dramatize them.”

In fact, things have gone so smoothly for them in tandem on The Good Wife that the Kings can’t envision a scenario in which they would end their professional partnership. “We don't always feel equal passion for an idea,” says Michelle, “but personally working together is so appetizing.” While Robert says he could possibly write more feature films on his own, that option would be out of the question for any future TV projects. “If one of us did write a pilot on our own, we would bring the other on as a showrunner because the job itself requires two people. And we have too much fun!”