Deadline TV contributor Diane Haithman files this report:
Michelle and Robert King regret only one thing about their critically acclaimed network political drama: the title. “I don’t think guys are saying: ‘I have to get home and watch The Good Wife,’” jokes Robert. “We could have done better for ourselves if it was called The Sexy Wife or The Wife in Very Sheer Lingerie. Problem is, the show is meant to be edgy in a cable-like way, and there is something very patrician-sounding about the title.” Whatever its name, the married creators and executive producers of this CBS series say they were shocked when 2010 Emmy nominations were announced and the freshman season reeled in nine Emmy nominations: for the series, for them as writers, for star Julianna Margulies, and for supporting actress Archie Panjabi who alone took home the gold for her edgy and sexy portrayal of secretive law firm investigator Kalinda Sharma.
“Look, the bottom line last year was, we weren’t expecting anything — and we’re not expecting anything this year,” says Robert. “We were just stunned by the love directed towards the show. You can be a little insular when you are doing a series — you get no sense of whether you are hitting your creative bullseye. What Emmy means to us is that it will probably bring more eyeballs. There may be people who are still turned off by the title, but I think it’s a show they might be drawn to if they saw it won an award.”
CBS Television Studios, which produces the serial, found that the problematic word for attracting audiences was not the word “Good” in the title but “Wife.” Says President David Stapf, “As a guy, I love this show. But I do wonder if the title does chase some men away?” Though at this point after its second season, the episode plots have gone far beyond the original topical premise: the story of a “good wife” who stands by a philandering political husband. Or does she?
Throughout Season Two, Julianna Margulies’ reserved Alicia Florrick began to shake a tail feather or two, especially after she discovered that her husband had kept secret still another sexual tryst. And there has been throughout both seasons, if not a promise, then at least a suggestion of sexual tension between Alicia and fellow attorney Will Gardner (Josh Charles) played out in awkward pauses, stammered sentences, and longing stares until the recent season finale. “We had a very long conversation with everybody at the studio and the network about the big reveal of the year, the Kalinda and Alicia difficulty,” Robert says. “We wanted to brief everybody and also hear any worries they had prior to it. If they had said, ‘My God, that’s going to destroy the series,’ then we might have rethought it. They had a few concerns, but it wasn’t like, ‘Don’t go there.’”
The Kings also say their decision to wait on exploring the possibility of Alicia having an affair outside her marriage had less to do with the network concerns or a double standard for female characters versus their male counterparts on the part of the audience — and more with
staying true to the character they had created. “We didn’t really approach it from how an audience would feel, as from ‘What would Alicia do?’” Michelle explains. “We try to be grounded in the reality of her character and what would push her buttons.” Agrees Robert, “Nothing is a moral slam dunk here. Yes, Alicia has been hurt by this latest infraction. But Peter also has a good argument that it is old news. But one of the core relationships here, if not the biggest relationship, is Alicia and Kalinda. If anything, this was meant to impact that more than Alicia’s relationship with Peter.”
Kalinda’s character is not usually found on network TV because of its multi-layered complexity: she beds women and men with seemingly equal abandon, and her mysterious past remains as elusive as her moral responsibility. Alicia is written just as veiled and subtle, although in a completely opposite way. Her past is obvious, though her future a question mark. These are the kinds of roles found easily on cable and rarely on broadcast TV. Which is why Michelle King felt the freshman show’s Emmy recognition last year “was especially flattering because there hasn’t been a lot of attention to network shows in the last few years. Emmy voters understand that we’re doing 23 episodes a year while the cable nominees have to produce only 13, which means higher pressure for us obviously. So to be among the few network shows that were named was important to us.”
A cable version of The Good Wife surely would have had both women engaged in every crazy kind of recreational sex both real and imagined. And while the Kings do pledge to portray more sex on the show next season, “what helped us from the beginning is that our premise is very realistic, and in cable sometimes the premises have to be a little bit unusual to cut through the clutter,” notes Michelle. “It’s hard not to look at cable with envy at times, for sure. The tradeoff is we get to tell more stories and usually have a bigger budget, so it probably evens out.”
Indeed, Baltimore Sun TV critic Dave Zurawik calls The Good Wife “one of the last in-depth quality dramas on network TV that both draws a large audience and provides viewers with some real dramatic meat.” Even star Margulies has said, “I was looking to do a cable show and landed on a network instead. But the fact is I got my cable show. It just happens to be on CBS. What I’m most proud of is being part of a team that’s taken a network drama and truly made it its own. Nina Tassler and Les Moonves in the beginning just saw us as a procedural, but we’ve never really been that. I’m incredibly proud of the fact that this show is allowing other network series at 10 to be more daring and take more chances on substantial material.”
The Kings say that, though CBS is dominated by procedurals, no exec has ever pushed them to give up their aspiration for a character-driven drama. Besides Margulies and Panjabi, the show’s multi-dimensional ancillary cast consisting of stars in their own right, Alan Cumming, Christine
Baranski, Chris Noth, and the recurring Michael J. Fox, is reason enough to watch. But both the network and the producers are in sync that scripts should also present well-structured legal cases that stand alone as quality procedural fare.
“While it is probably one of the requirements of the network, it also works into the reality of the world. It’s not just about audiences. We like to create good legal dramas,” says Michelle. “One of the fun things is that Alicia is always having meltdowns in her private life, but then has to go into the offi ce and the courtroom and deal with a case.”
Notes Robert King that, like cable, “CBS Studios pushes us to make the show more chancy and meaty, not less.” And is there anything that CBS won’t let them do? Michelle notes, “We can pretty much do it all — except say fuck and shit. Sometimes, we like to comically play around with the language to get around that inability. For example, a prostitute told Alicia’s husband, ‘I want to Florrick you all night.’”