The new CBS drama “The Good Wife” certainly has timing on its side, telling a story about the aftermath of political scandal in a time when a new Elliot Spitzer, Rod Blagojevich or Mark Sanford seems to pop up every month.
Good timing will only get you so far, though, if your show doesn’t deliver the goods. “The Good Wife,” which premieres at 10 p.m. ET Tuesday, has a lot more going for it than just a news hook.
The show isn’t flashy, and it doesn’t set up some huge mystery to drive events. It does, however, pose a couple of human-scaled and intriguing question: Why would the wronged wife of a humiliated politician stick with her husband, and what happens to her after the scandal breaks?
Alicia Florrick (“ER” veteran Julianna Margulies) hasn’t fully answered the first question, and she’s just starting to figure out the second. We learn in a prologue that her husband, Peter (Chris Noth, “Sex and the City”), the state’s attorney for Chicago and Cook County, Ill., is resigning in the wake of a sex and corruption scandal. After watching Alicia deliver a well-earned slap to her husband’s face, we jump to six months later, where she’s the newest (and oldest) junior associate at a prestigious Chicago law firm where a former law-school buddy (Josh Charles) is now a partner.
Alicia hasn’t cut all ties with her husband — the first thing we see six months later is her wedding ring, and she still visits him in jail — but even to the extent that she tries to get away from him, she can’t. The scandal is still in the news, her teenage kids (Makenzie Vega and Graham Phillips) are hearing taunts at school — and her first case is a criminal retrial that the new state’s attorney is hot to put in the win column.
On top of all that, Alicia also has to contend with colleagues skeptical of her return to the workplace and a fellow associate (Matt Czuchry of “Gilmore Girls”) who’s competing hard with her for the sole opening at the firm.
“The Good Wife” wisely doesn’t overplay any of these elements or turn Alicia’s story into a woe-is-me tale. Creators Michelle and Robert King (a husband-and-wife team) seem to recognize that whatever wins Alicia does get won’t suddenly erase the lingering effects of Peter’s betrayal; as she puts it to him during a jailhouse visit, there’s no way her life is ever going back to the way it was.
The series has a strong cast — Archie Panjabi, as Alicia’s smart and sharp-tongued investigator, and Christine Baranski, as a partner in the firm, round out the regulars — but it is unquestionably Margulies’ show, and she’s excellent in it. Even in moments where she’s not saying much, Margulies is able to communicate a wealth of information just by the look in her eyes or the way she tilts her head. It’s hard to overstate how important that quality could be to a show like “The Good Wife,” because it could well be the thing that keeps the show from tipping into melodramatic territory.
The primary concern for the show will be keeping a balance between the close-ended elements of the cases Alicia works on and the larger story of her coming to terms with her new life. Tuesday’s premiere walks the line pretty well, but if it tips too far toward the case of the week, it will lose a lot of what makes that first episode so strong.
If the show is able to keep that balance, and if it continues to play to Margulies’ strengths, “The Good Wife” has the potential to be very good.
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