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'The Good Wife': The politician's wife gets hers

September 23, 2009 |  8:44 am

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Julianna Margulies -- and her impeccable eyebrows -- returned to network TV in last night’s premiere of the much-anticipated “The Good Wife.” If the legal drama begins to sounds familiar, it's because the plot of “The Good Wife” is ripped from the proverbial headlines. 

Margulies plays Alicia Florrick, a Silda Spitzer-esque wife to politician Peter (Chris Noth), who is in prison for misuse of public money: specifically, for spending it on trysts with toe-sucking prostitutes. Unfortunately for his family, these encounters were caught on tape, spreading like wildfire online and across the airwaves (though the decision to make Peter a lowly state’s attorney, rather than, say, a governor, struck me as odd). With legal bills mounting and two kids to take care of, Alicia decides to work, dusting off her career as an attorney after 15 years as a stay-at-home mom.

Now, before I continue, a confession: I am not exactly a connoisseur of legal shows. On occasion, I’ll dabble with a little “Law and Order,” but at this point, who hasn’t? So going in, I was a little wary about “The Good Wife,”  but color me converted. Here’s why:

Of course, there’s the irresistibly timely hook.  Watching a seemingly endless stream of politicians’ wives -- Elizabeth Edwards, Jenny Sanford, Silda Spitzer -- sticking it out with their sleazy spouses, I can’t help but wonder what really goes on behind the scenes in these scandal-plagued relationships. Are these women pathetic, loyal to a fault, opportunistic or something else altogether? And while we’re at it, what do Hillary and Bill talk about over dinner? Do they lapse into awkward silence anytime anyone mentions cigars or dresses from the Gap?  Inquiring minds want to know. 

The show tackles this subject head-on. At one point, Alicia’s new co-worker, Kalinda (Archie Punjabi), tells her, “You know what I don’t get?  Why you stuck by him.” She speaks for most of the women in America.  

Though its pace is brisk (Alicia’s already hard at work on her first trial by the time the opening credits have finished), “The Good Wife” occasionally slows down long enough for some emotional resonance. In the doozie of an opening scene, Peter announces his retirement in a televised press conference, Alicia at his side. As chaos swirls around her, Alicia homes in on a stray thread on her husband’s jacket and tunes out her husband’s statement. It’s a convincingly mundane way of coping with a kind of public humiliation most of us can’t imagine living through. Once in private, she slaps her philandering husband across the face, something most of us can imagine doing.

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OK, enough about the infidelity. Lest we forget, most of the show, at least so far, is about Alicia’s work as a lawyer. Whether the creators intended it, this aspect of the show is also perfectly tuned to the current economic climate. At the big law firm where she’s a lowly junior associate, Alicia is quickly put on a pro bono case defending a woman accused of murdering her ex-husband (as you probably know by now, all television lawyers are litigators). The stakes in the case are high: She’s up against a smarmy junior associate for a permanent position, and this is her chance to prove herself. Her law school pal, Will (played by Josh Charles, who will always be “Knox Overstreet” to me), is a partner at the firm, and -- I am hoping -- a love interest.  Pretty please?

While the legal plot line dutifully progresses, the show manages to sneak in a number of gender issues in a smart, relatively subtle way. Reluctant to assert herself, Alicia is all too willing to pick up the slack left by her flaky, twentysomething female assistant. Meanwhile, her boss (played by the always-terrifying Christine Baranski) undermines her at every turn and seems all too ready to hold Alicia’s personal life against her. Finally, there’s Kalina, the tough in-house investigator who uses her cleavage to crack a case (metaphorically speaking, of course). Alicia, for her part, prefers subtler forms of manipulation: She ingratiates herself with one woman by asking her about her kids.

If there’s one shortcoming of the show so far, it’s that it’s strenuously tasteful. Throughout the first episode, even when she’s slapping her husband in the face, Alicia is freakishly poised. No need for a catfight, but it would be OK to see a little crack in her veneer.  

What did you think of the show?  Do you think it will survive?  Would you prefer to see more drama outside of the courtroom, rather than in it?  What’s in store for Alicia?

-- Meredith Blake

Photo credit: CBS

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