Chris Noth, left, as Peter Florrick on the CBS drama "The Good Wife." (David M. Russell / CBS )
When "The Good Wife" premiered in fall 2009, on the heels of numerous political sex scandals, it posed an irresistibly provocative question: Why do so many publicly betrayed women stand by their philandering husbands? Now in its second season, "The Good Wife" has garnered a devoted following among political insiders because of its sophisticated take on current events, served up alongside plenty of sex, jealousy and interoffice romance.
Imagine that: One of the raciest shows on network television is also the wonkiest.
From the beginning, the show's creators, Robert and Michelle King, have looked to the headlines for inspiration, fictionalizing high-profile newsmakers like Julian Assange and Glenn Beck. But what's really caught the attention of the punditocracy is the show's engagement with more niche subjects, like the influence of hedge funds on class-action lawsuits and the use of so-called video "trackers" in campaigns.
"A lot of political folks I know watch 'The Good Wife,' " said Ben Smith, a blogger at Politico. "I think it has an unusually deft feel for the real calculations and mechanics of politics."
This may be why so many politicos — like Lou Dobbs, Vernon Jordan and former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi — have made cameo appearances on the show. Somewhat in jest, the Kings say their dream guest is Donald Rumsfeld.
This season, "The Good Wife" has delved into the sordid world of campaign politics. Fresh out of prison, Peter Florrick (Chris Noth) is vying to reclaim the office of Illinois state's attorney, the very job from which he resigned after a dalliance with a prostitute. Not unlike a certain disgraced governor from the Northeast, Peter wasted little time staging his comeback.
"Even though [former New York Gov.] Eliot Spitzer hasn't run again, the sense is that the best way [for him] to move on is to act like it didn't happen," Robert King said. Peter's wife, Alicia (Julianna Margulies), an associate at a fictional law firm, is cautiously supportive of her husband's bid.
The series is set in famously scandal-ridden Chicago, and going forward, "The Good Wife" will likely capitalize on the city's colorful new mayor-elect, Rahm Emanuel. "We'd love, as much as possible, to touch on the real people in Chicago, the real institutions," King said.
Another infamous local politician, Rod R. Blagojevich, almost made an appearance on the show. In the proposed episode, Peter's delightfully ruthless campaign manager Eli Gold (Alan Cumming) goes to elaborate lengths to keep his client from being photographed with the toxic former Illinois governor. The idea was eventually shelved, but it speaks to one of the show's overarching themes: the comic absurdity of contemporary politics.
"In many ways 'The Good Wife' is meant to be just funny as it is dramatic," King said. "To us what's interesting is when it starts creeping into comedy."
The Kings and their seven staff writers comb the headlines daily in search of ideas for the show. They say they tend to favor Web-based outlets like Politico, Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos and the Drudge Report. They also dig deep. "What we're looking for is not exactly 'ripped from the headlines,' it's usually below the fold, or even buried in another section," King said.
The result is a richer show, both narratively and intellectually. In one nail-biting episode, Alicia files an eleventh-hour appeal for a death-row inmate. The plot was inspired by a 2009 New Yorker article about the controversial execution of Cameron Todd Willingham; one character even refers to the piece by name. As the episode was about to go into production, the Kings happened upon an Associated Press story about widespread shortages of sodium thiopental, one of the chemicals used in lethal injections. They incorporated this item into their script, adding an extra dose of suspense — and poignancy.
"What's lucky with TV, especially network TV, is you can bring in something you just read or watched or saw on the Internet that morning," King said.
Politics permeate nearly every aspect of "The Good Wife," including the characters' private lives. Alicia's return to the legal profession after years as a homemaker has provided insightful commentary on gender and the workplace. Last season, left-leaning senior partner Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) fell for a gun-toting, Palin-loving ballistics expert named Kurt McVeigh (Gary Cole). Their unlikely romance was entertaining, but it was also an earnest rebuke of our highly polarized climate.
"I think a lot of people were waiting for McVeigh to pull his mask off and do something wrong, but we made him the true, upstanding John Wayne character," Robert King said. The show may have a liberal perspective, but the Kings play with expectations.
"It's partly an effort to be evenhanded, and it's just as irresistible to make fun of both sides," said Michelle King.
Given this measured approach, it's comforting to know that an average of 13.7 million Americans tune in to "The Good Wife" every week. The Kings are delighted at the show's success, and especially by the support they've received from CBS.
"They've allowed this premise to be pushed, so we haven't had to shy away from issues of race, religion or politics," Robert King said. "We're surprised they would even give us keys to a car."