'Good Wife' merges network law, cable class
By Maureen Ryan
Once upon a time, cable dramas were very different from the typical network drama.
That's still often the case, but "The Good Wife" may be the most successful merger yet of the two sensibilities.
This sterling CBS drama, which stars Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick, the steely wife of a disgraced Chicago politician, wraps up its first season May 25. And this handsome show has the skilled cast, deluxe production values and smart writing you'd expect to see on HBO, Showtime, FX or AMC.
It may not be filmed in Chicago, but the drama has called on the talents of Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members Terry Kinney, Gary Cole and Martha Plimpton, among many other top-flight guest stars, and it recently added Alan Cumming as the show's in-house "Rahm Emanuel" character. It wouldn't be inaccurate to call the legal drama the broadcast-network version of FX's "Damages," which had much lower ratings but a similarly outstanding array of actors.
Yet, despite all its nods toward cable-style ambiguity and class, "The Good Wife's" creators and executive producers, Robert and Michelle King, are mindful of the fact that their show airs on CBS, the most traditional broadcast network, and follows detective shows in which the bad guy is always caught by the end of the hour.
"It was so important to have the twists and turns that you would expect coming from 'NCIS' or 'NCIS: LA,' " Robert King said in a recent dual phone interview with Michelle, his wife. "You want some of the red meat of procedural."
And that's the almost impossible feat that "The Good Wife," which regularly pulls in between 12 million and 14 million viewers, has pulled off: The show allows fans of both meaty procedural fare and cable-style complexity to have their cake and eat it too.
As "Wife" has evolved in its first season, it has built up a compelling world filled with lawyers, politicians and shrewd power players, and it has gotten better at merging the work life of Alicia, who has returned to the legal profession, with the political fortunes of her husband, Peter (Chris Noth), whose retrial on corruption charges began in the May 11 episode.
"What's been fun with exploring Alicia this season is seeing how far she's come," Michelle King said. "She started out really unsure of her footing professionally. As she's gone on, she's become far more secure in what she does. And she hasn't been unethical, but she lives more in grey areas than I think she anticipated at the beginning of the year."
Not only are "Good Wife's" cases of the week interesting and topical — a recent outing centered on a political cartoon that depicted the Prophet Muhammad — the show also touches on subjects such as racism and corruption without ever becoming dour or excessively dark.
One episode had Peter's starchy mother reacting with undisguised alarm when she learned that he had been receiving spiritual counsel from an African-American pastor.
"You're patronizing about racism when you tiptoe around it," Robert King said. "The more we can treat that stuff honestly, the more there's a sense these are real people."
Still, he adds, "we're kind of amazed that we get away with some of this stuff."
The show gets away with it because topical or controversial issues are handled with a light touch yet the characters themselves — and their ambitions and concerns — aren't treated frivolously. For instance, there's been a lot of charged banter between the rough-hewn ballistics investigator played by Cole and Christine Baranski's die-hard feminist lawyer, Diane Lockhart, but their debates always have a flirtatious vibe.
Kalinda Sharma, the investigator played by Archie Panjabi, is unapologetically tough and extremely savvy, yet she's also clad every week in to-die-for leather boots and fitted jackets.
And even though it's a show about the fallout from a political scandal and a woman torn between two men — Alicia's still drawn to her old life with Peter but also to a work colleague, Will Gardner (Josh Charles) — "The Good Wife" never comes across as soapy or melodramatic. The show is too subtle for that, yet the charged attraction between Alicia and each of the men in her life isn't minimized, either.
"When we started out, we would have that half page of dialogue" explaining what was going on, Michelle King noted. "We realized we didn't need it. (The cast) is so skilled that the audience gets everything."
In the middle of the season, "The Good Wife" amped things up by adding what the Kings call the "Rahm Emanuel character." They wanted to add a political fixer to Peter's inner circle, and the show hit a home run by casting Cumming in the role of the confrontational, well-dressed Eli Gold.
"I think we were watching (an early cut of) his second scene when we said, 'OK, that's exactly what we need,' " Robert said. Cumming is not only adept at stealing scenes, but his character is also at the center of a new, politically oriented "spider web" on the show, the Kings said.
As Robert noted, "you need ways for Alicia's life to overlap with (the couple's) political life," and Gold has filled that need so admirably that Cumming was made a series regular for Season 2 (CBS has such confidence in "Wife" that it renewed the show for another season in January).
The Kings don't want to be too specific about where next season will go, because they want the freedom to keep drawing elements from the lives of real power couples. But the results of the job competition between Carey (Matt Czuchry) and Alicia, which was decided in Alicia's favor last week, will continue to reverberate next season, and next year, a third partner will be added to the mix at Alicia's firm.