A year after the lamentable "Canterbury's Law" was followed by a brief but shining resurrection of Carol Hathaway during "ER's" final season, Julianna Margulies is back on television. And with any luck, she's here to stay; "The Good Wife," which premieres on CBS tonight, is hands-down the best new drama of the season.
As Alicia Florrick, the wronged wife of philandering politician Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), Margulies could easily have been stuck trying to fill out a ripped-from-the-morning-shows caricature of a gutsy victim. But thanks to creators Michelle and Robert King, she has been given the opportunity to create a smart, subtle, richly nuanced Everywoman facing disaster. Who also happens to be a great defense attorney, because this is prime time, after all.
When Peter winds up disgraced, jobless and jailed in the midst of an ongoing sexual and political scandal, Alicia shows up for the obligatory photo op, standing ashen-faced and upright beside "her man" at the all-too-familiar apologia press conference. But backstage, she makes it clear that the title of show shouldn't be taken at face value. Peter may while away his jail time hoping for a successful appeal and the return of "normal life," but Alicia is on her own time now.
Brought into a high-profile Chicago law firm by old friend (and possible love interest) Will ("In Treatment's" Josh Charles), Alicia has to cope with her own notoriety and the fact that she's been out of the courtroom for 13 years. "Wow, I was 12," says Kalinda (Archie Panjabi), who is the firm's in-house investigator and less than sympathetic when Alicia mentions her first-day-back qualms. Taken immediately under the less-than-sheltering wing of top litigator Diane (a perfectly cast and most welcome Christine Baranski), who still says things like, "We women have to stick together," Alicia finds herself in direct competition with the firm's other new associate, a baby-faced barracuda named Cary (Matt Czuchry).
Given a seemingly hopeless pro bono case to handle, Alicia not only has to remember how to practice law, she also has to figure out who committed the crime if her client didn't. That, and deal with her smarmy jailed husband (Noth at his liquid-eyed best), all those legal bills, the insatiable media churn, her possibly traumatized but still engaging teenage children and the overbearing mother-in-law she is forced to turn to for child care. It's strangely refreshing to see a beautiful, brilliant and beleaguered professional whose problems are not all of her own making.
And Margulies doesn't miss a beat. Her face carefully arranged to display only the most basic and necessary emotions, she quickly and brilliantly evokes a woman who is literally holding herself together one hour at a time.
"Go home, take a shower, take a nap," she tells her client, a young mother accused of murdering her ex-husband. "Do you like to read? I'll bring you some books. Fiction is best." Rattling off a list of the little things that will keep her client sane, Alicia is clearly speaking from experience.
"Does it get easier?" the woman asks.
"No," she answers lightly, "but you get better at it."
It's an astonishing little exchange, which Margulies chooses to underplay to perfection, revealing more in her character's restraint than the pathos of the words, which are a much more valuable and true example of women helping women than any shabby-feminist mentoring could be. With the rest of the cast hitting the same high notes as Margulies and the script, "The Good Wife" promises to be that Holy Grail of television: a good criminal procedural that barely disguises the insightful, multilayered human drama that lies beneath.
'The Good Wife'
When: 10 tonight
Rating: TV-PG-LSV (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)