The woman beside the man


Odds are there’s a Hillary Rodham Clinton, Jenny Sanford, Silda Wall Spitzer, Dina Matos McGreevey, Wendy Vitter or even a Monica Lewinsky tuning into the second-most-watched new series of the fall season.

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Banking on the 13.7 million viewers enthralled by the story of the woman beside the man, CBS announced last week that it will pick up “The Good Wife,” airing Tuesdays at 10 p.m., for a full season.

But in a recent interview, the show’s creators, husband-and-wife team Robert and Michelle King, said “the show wasn’t based on any scandals.”

Instead of fashioning the hourlong drama as a Guess Who? of infamous infidelities, what the Kings were really interested in was “that image of the wife standing next to the politician.”

Starring Julianna Margulies (of “ER” fame) as Alicia Florrick, the former Stepford wife of a disgraced state’s attorney (played with acute arrogance by Chris Noth), the pilot episode opens at a podium. The podium. The same one that can be seen in every political press conference about “personal failings” since the creation of YouTube.

As her husband waxes political about his “private dealings with these women,” Alicia, sporting a St. John suit, pearls and a very Sarah Palin-esque half-’do, focuses on a loose thread on his suit jacket — a fitting metaphor for the unraveling of her life as the Mrs. of a somebody. The cameras flash; the couple lock hands; then they disappear behind closed doors.

And that’s where the viral video usually ends. The Kings, like most of us, wanted to be on the other side of that door, when the hapless couple walk off the political stage and into real life.

“A writer’s job is always asking, ‘Well, what happens next?’” explained Robert King. “What happens in the green room?”

For the fictional Florricks it’s a stone-cold slap across the face, delivered after Peter asks a disillusioned Alicia, “Hey, are you OK?” After socking him one, Alicia straightens her jacket and heads down a long hallway to who-knows-where. Flash-forward six months and Peter’s in prison (for corruption, not canoodling) and Alicia, now the sole breadwinner, is forced to go back to work as a first-year associate at a big firm 15 years after graduating law school.

“The kids and Peter’s career” is how she explains her long absence from the workforce (or perhaps even the real world), and one can’t help but feel sorry for her. Especially when her co-workers are YouTubing the now-infamous press conference and asking, “You know what I don’t get, why you stuck by him. I would’ve stuck a knife in his heart.” Alicia, newly employed, minus the pearls and perfect hair, answers thoughtfully, “I was ... unprepared.”

The one woman in the room who has no sympathy for Alicia’s “prominent baggage” is Diane Lockhart — a Chaucerian character if there ever was one in prime time.

Diane (played to steely perfection by Christine Baranski) is Alicia’s superior at the firm and her foil. Having chosen her career over her personal life (as evidenced by her designer dog), Diane offers Alicia some direct advice: Pointing to a photo of herself with Hillary Clinton, she says, “Men can be lazy; women can’t. And I think that goes double for you. Not only are you coming back to the workplace fairly late, but you have some very prominent baggage. But, hey, if she can do it, so can you.” Here Diane could mean many things: reignite your stalled career, forgive your cheating husband, or some combination thereof.

Though Secretary Clinton might seem an easy (if not overused) target, the inclusion of her image in the first episode of “The Good Wife” is more than just a tongue-in-cheek lick at old wounds; the Kings said they wanted to depict “those who broke the glass ceiling and women who came afterward” and, of course, “still have it be entertaining.”

And then there was the timing.

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“We were writing this during the Hillary Clinton [presidential] campaign,” said Robert King, who also noted that for the role of Peter, he had one suggestion for the show’s director: “Imagine Bill Clinton in prison.”

But the title of the show says it all. In “The Good Wife,” it’s Alicia’s struggle out in the big world, not her husband’s behind bars, that the series focuses on. At the center of that is the story of a woman (wife, mother, whatever) putting the pieces back together. In subsequent episodes it is Alicia’s intuition — feminine, motherly or otherwise — that is her biggest asset, perhaps too easily making up for her decades-long absence but definitely affirming the value of the mommy bullet-point on one’s résumé.

“What we like about this character so very much,” said Michelle King, “is that even though she suffered this tremendous setback personally, she’s taking it as an opportunity to grow. When she slaps Peter, she’s really also slapping herself awake.”