In the most revealing and promising science fiction premiere of the fall television season, a female alien lands largely unannounced in a predominantly male universe. She is teased and goaded or sometimes treated as if invisible or worthless. She quickly comes to understand that the rules of this foreign territory were not written with her kind in mind and she will likely spend the rest of her time in this place withering under its harsh rules or gamely attempting to teach her unwilling hosts about the superior way of life led by her people. Either path will be lonely.
So it goes on "The Good Wife" (CBS, 10 p.m. Tuesdays), which stars Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick, wife of a haughty politician felled by a sex scandal. A mother of two returning to the workplace -- in her case, a prominent Chicago law firm -- after well over a decade in the home and as political arm candy, she's a virtual outcast from the start, an alien in every sense. (It maybe shouldn't be so surprising that Ridley Scott is an executive producer of this show.)
Alicia isn't alone this season in her quest for a second act in a new land. On "Cougar Town" (ABC, 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays), Courteney Cox plays Jules Cobb, another older woman amid a life transition, in her case back into the dating pool, a world as vexing as any white-shoe law firm. And like Alicia, she's treated either with kid gloves or boxing gloves but seldom respect.
That's probably because, by the strictures and bylaws of network television, Alicia, Jules and characters like them essentially are incomprehensible invaders: independent, single (or single-ish) older women seeking change in their lives and succeeding (sometimes, at least). As a result, they're treated like fragile, curious creatures that might implode on contact. Or lash out.
No one wants to accommodate them on their own terms.
And that's on the shows that are sympathetic to their plight. Though they go about it in very different fashions, both of these programs want to bring about evolution. "Cougar Town" lives and dies by its willingness to extract humor from Jules' awkwardness. There's a winning quality to Cox's readiness to erode traditional boundaries, and her conversation on the show often rips loose with a discomfiting ease -- Jules talks somewhat flippantly about sex with anyone who'll listen, including her son Travis (played by a sharp Dan Byrd). Oddly, it never comes off as gratuitous, only honestly clumsy.
But at times, it's as if Cox doesn't trust her own body to convey Jules' tug-of-war, playing the character with broad physical gestures that tend toward the slapstick. There's no ease in her gestures, and perhaps that's the point, but it can tend to make Jules more an object of pity than complexity.
In its quest for unassailable moral and ethical ground, "The Good Wife" leaves less to chance. Thus far on this show, which amounts to a legal procedural with a heavy dose of domestic struggle, Alicia has represented only redeemable clients, which reinforces the notion that there's no case that can't be solved with matronly instincts.
In her struggles between billable hours and well-balanced meals, she earns the admiration of her supervisors, and even of the hotshot youngsters, but "The Good Wife" has yet to present Alicia as something other than an interloper, a nuisance who must be accommodated. The specter of her husband, played stodgily by Chris Noth, persistently hangs over her, as if to remind her that even her independence is defined by the boundaries of her dependence.
But then there is the matter of Ms. Margulies' eyebrows, among the most expressive body parts of any actor ever. They are sharply drawn yet gentle, and they sit with intent, like sentries. What saves Alicia from being reduced to cliche is her gravitas and competence, poses that Margulies has had down cold since her time on "E.R." In no small way, the eyebrows help. Arresting and certain, they speak loudly even when no one around is listening.