Uncommon Law Wife

CBS's hit The Good Wife shows that nuanced drama isn't illegal on the big networks yet

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Photo-Illustration by Josue Evilla for TIME; The Good Wife; CBS

Juliana Margulies, center, is Alicia Florrick, the wife of an adulterous politician, who now faces her own hard choices.

Two years after Eliot Spitzer resigned as governor of New York in a prostitution scandal, his CNN talk show recently debuted at a dismal fourth place in its cable-news time slot. On CBS, meanwhile, The Good Wife—a legal drama about the spouse of an adulterous politician—returned after a successful first season that averaged more than 13 million viewers. In fictional TV, at least, there is justice.

The Good Wife (Tuesdays, 10 p.m. E.T.) has more on its impressive docket than vengeance, however, though it began with a wish-fulfillment premise. After her husband, state's attorney Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), was busted with a hooker, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) decided not to stand by her man but to dust off her law degree, join a high-profile Chicago firm as a defense attorney and support her family.

Over the first season, Alicia struggled to keep up at the office and see her kids through the ongoing scandal. (Peter was guilty of cheating but seemed to have been framed on the associated corruption charge.) To keep her job, she had to play hardball and make ethical compromises, including accepting insider help from her ex. For her family's sake, she sought to help Peter get out of jail and come to terms with his infidelity. All this while dealing with her firm's financial troubles and the internal politics between its partners Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) and Will Gardner (Josh Charles)—oh, and the lingering attraction between her and Will, an old classmate from Georgetown.

In the process, The Good Wife has become not just a story about one woman's journey but also one of network TV's strongest dramas, a show about the exercise of power in courtrooms, boardrooms, political back rooms and bedrooms. And it's developed an entertaining wonkiness rare on network TV since the departure of The West Wing. This is the kind of show on which, when Alicia and Peter attempt a reconciliation, they consummate it in the bathroom while NPR's All Things Considered plays on the radio in the background. You will never hear public-radio theme music the same way again.

TV for Grownups
The Good Wife offers something for the casual, occasional viewer and the obsessive follower alike. It's a terrific case-of-the-week courtroom procedural; Emmy winner Archie Panjabi is stoically mesmerizing as Kalinda, the firm's poker-faced private eye who digs up exculpatory evidence by any means necessary. But it's also several shows in one: a legal, romantic, political, family and workplace drama.

And in each story line it has an unusual moral ambiguity for a big-network show. Every character here has shades of gray: Will, a stand-up guy who's a shark when necessary; Peter, who's repentant but remains cunning and slick; and Eli Gold, Peter's loyal but conniving campaign manager in his comeback bid, played with Luciferian gusto by Alan Cumming.

Above all, there's Alicia, who has evolved from the righteously wronged woman of the early episodes. As she's gotten more confident in the courtroom, she's become less of an absolutist in life, bending rules and supporting Peter's vindication even though he humiliated her. When Will impulsively professes his love to her (the Season 1 cliffhanger), she turns him down; she feels something for him too, but she needs a life plan, not just pretty words. Margulies plays Alicia as likable but steely, principled but pragmatic. She wants to be good; she can't afford to be a saint.

This fall, the broadcast networks have mostly made safe bets (Hawaii Five-0 remake, anyone?) that have done modestly at best in the ratings. With Fox's Lone Star and ABC's My Generation—the only remotely daring newbies on the slate—already canceled, TV's aging giants seem to have ceded the ambition department to cable. The Good Wife, though, reminds us that it's still possible for mass-audience TV to be nuanced and adult. It just takes a good woman—and some flawed men—to do it.