CBS' The Good Wife is the television equivalent of quicksilver, morphing from legal drama to domestic romàn-a-clef to political potboiler over the course of an hour.
But while it might be impossible to precisely categorize this ambitious drama, it's clear that The Good Wife—which stars Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick—is groundbreaking in its approach to storytelling, weaving together thought-provoking legal cases with an innately adult exploration of modern marriage.
Gallery: A Character-by-Character Breakdown of The Good Wife
Nominated for eight Prime-Time Emmy Awards over the summer for its first season, including Outstanding Drama Series, The Good Wife took home the statuette for Best Supporting Actress for Archie Panjabi (for her breakout role as law firm investigator Kalinda). Months before, Margulies had walked off with a Golden Globe for Best Actress, as well as kudos from the Screen Actors Guild. But it's more than mere critical darling: The show cracked the Top 20 programs, averaging 13.5 million viewers overall in its first season.
Now in its second season, The Good Wife is even more accomplished and poised. Attracting the same adult viewers as such quality dramas as Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, which, because they are on cable aren't subject to strict network standards for content, the show nevertheless pulses with a grownup sensibility. What could have been a boilerplate legal drama in which well-heeled lawyers battle in court continues to surprise with a nuanced exploration of modern mores, viewed through the prism of technology, social media, sexuality, marriage, religion, and race.
The initial question of whether Alicia would remain with her philandering husband Peter (Chris Noth)—imprisoned amid a hailstorm of prostitutes, political graft, and potential conspiracies—has transformed itself into larger issues: women in the workplace, how marriages survive in the face of adversity, and why wives such as Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Edwards, and Silda Wall Spitzer remain with their husbands (or don't) after such public betrayals.
"There's something very vulnerable about that position because you're not the one who did wrong," Robert King told The Daily Beast. "Yet you're made to stand up there and show support. To us, that seemed like a fascinating starting off point... What is that next day like? That next hour? How do you raise kids in that environment?"
Margulies said, “It’s such a challenge to play her because … I never feel completely comfortable in her shoes.”
The Good Wife has moved exuberantly beyond what could have been a gimmicky conceit, positioning the voyeuristic spectacle of Alicia's life and intense, ripped-from-the-headlines legal cases alongside something more intellectually engaging. The Chicago-set show offers a wink at the fourth wall existing between the viewer and the screen. YouTube (or VidTrope, as it's called here) and Twitter are omnipresent; scandals are given NMA World Edition treatment, Lou Dobbs and political strategist Joe Trippi have guest starred as themselves; Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre was lampooned ( enraging fans of the theatrical troupe in the process); former Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan turned up in a recent episode where the main plot revolved around a soiled towel and a beloved Nobel Peace Prize recipient enmeshed in a potential sex scandal.
(The Kings said that they wanted to write an episode in which Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sues an oil company—with the firm representing Chavez—but ran into legal complications.)
It's a brisk afternoon in Los Angeles and husband-and-wife creators Robert and Michelle King sit side by side on a green velvet couch in their shared office at Culver Studios, roughly 3,000 miles away from The Good Wife's New York set. (The two stay in close contact with those on set via a Polycom "immersive telepresence system" that enables them to talk to the director during physical production.)
The Kings said that Margulies, the former ER mainstay and fan favorite, is the polar opposite of Alicia Florrick, describing her as a "very powerful woman" who often must sublimate her own instincts to slip into Alicia's skin.
"Alicia was ready to rule the world when she got out of college but put that all on hold to… let the man lead," said Robert King of Margulies. "Julianna's not that."
Margulies laughed when told this. "It's such a challenge to play her because my reactions are very different than hers," she said, on a day off from production. "I never feel completely comfortable in her shoes."
The Good Wife's second season has shown us a more determined Alicia, as it delved deeper into the state of the marriage between her and politico husband Peter ( Sex and the City's Chris Noth), one that's had a rocky road amid his reelection campaign, as well as her attraction towards her boss Will ( Josh Charles).
"The thing I love about Alicia is that she isn't someone who has a knee-jerk reaction… even in the moment where she wants to be swept up, she's thinking logically," said Margulies. "There's something old-fashioned about her. I really do feel like she went from a Leave It to Beaver-kind of existence… [and] is realizing that you can't always be good."
While sex may not be the priority for Alicia, the show features bedroom issues of fidelity and satisfaction, offering a complex web of desire and frustration that's vastly different than, say, Grey's Anatomy's bed-hopping.
Even so, viewers' were taken aback recently when in the season premiere, Peter performed oral sex on his wife, breaking a broadcast network taboo that speaks volumes about the mature way The Good Wife handles the sexuality of its characters. As Ellen Gray, the Philadelphia Daily News TV critic, tweeted after the scene, "OK, you don't see THAT every night of the week on CBS."
"The cunnilingus scene that started the year was really coming from character," said Robert King. "We did want to explore the idea of how a married couple, that goes through that situation with hookers... moves toward sexuality. We and Julianna don't want her character to run away from her sexuality."
The Kings said that they often compromise with network standards and practices over some of the sexual content for the show, which airs in a post-watershed 10 p.m. timeslot, but more often than not the restrictions just force them to be more creative.
"There are some shows that try to get as many swear words in as they can in order to brand themselves as a 10 o'clock show," said Michelle King. "That was never part of our conception."
Her husband agrees. "We thought we'd try to push some buttons and make the cases very specific because it really does get tired to say, 'oh, here's the murder of the week.' We thought we'd take the 10 o'clock part of it and embrace it, but not in any serious way. The show talks about anal sex but it's for a gag; the show talks about the flotillas and the controversy between Israel and Palestine but it's comic… The only way to beat cable is to surprise people with the content, and that to us feels like it's a combination of comedy and drama that seems very specific to 10 o'clock."
Still, the characters retain a sense of consequences for sexual encounters.
"We can't keep hopping from bed to bed to bed because there are repercussions from even hopping into one bed," said Robert King. "Playing the real damage that Eliot Spitzer did or Peter Florrick did, we have to honor that in every part of Alicia's life."
Margulies agreed. "This is a woman who—except for the [season premiere] when there was a little fornication—has not had much intimacy with a man in over a year," she said. "She's holding out for what's right. The only thing that feels legal is to sometimes have sex with her own husband."
Yes, only The Good Wife could make martial relations controversial, mining the black hole of infidelity and suspicion from both sides of the gender divide, which should make the show fairly universal in a way.
It's no secret that The Good Wife has amassed a sizable audience, but while the show rules the 10 p.m. hour on Tuesdays, Wife isn't a juggernaut with younger viewers.
"We didn't think that it would be something that would skew old," said Robert King. "I think people who don't sample it might think it's dramatic or maybe too serialized."
It may be that the title—which is meant to be "ironic," according to the Kings—is holding back male viewers, a shame as the show offers an intelligent and provocative look at politics, the law, and marital issues that cut across gender lines.
"If there was anything we could go back and reverse, it would be the title," said Robert King. "I understand why some shows just name the show after the character. How do you find something that doesn't just scream, 'oh, this is a procedural,' or 'this is some kind of wanky feminine drama'? I don't think we escaped that. Really, I think the title has a tendency to make men think, 'Well, here's the menstruation hour.'"
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Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment websites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.