In March 2008, while Eliot Spitzer acknowledged on television that he had destroyed his career as governor of New York by patronizing high-priced prostitutes, his wife, Silda, stood loyally beside him, trying to pretend that he hadn't wrecked her life, too, but knowing that most people would remember that day long after forgetting everything else about her.
Millions of TV watchers of course pitied her, but every TV producer in the United States must have had precisely the same thought: There has to be a great series in this.
And so there is. The Good Wife, which reaches its ninth episode tonight, has quickly established itself as a feminist melodrama and an often gripping legal story. It begins as an unauthorized adaptation of the Spitzer story. The fictional state attorney in Chicago, Peter Florrick, has been filmed in bed with a prostitute and convicted of paying her with state funds. In a few months, he's in jail; on The Good Wife, as happens only in fiction, courts move with astonishing speed.
Alicia Florrick, like Silda Spitzer, endures the press conference, wearing an obligatory coma-like expression, nourishing her rage in private. Like Silda, she has a good law degree (Silda is Harvard, Alicia Georgetown). Like Silda, Alicia abandoned professional ambitions to be a wife and mother, which gives an extra dimension to her husband's betrayal.
There, the two stories part. While the Spitzers have at their disposal a gargantuan fortune made by Eliot's father, the Florricks have been living on Peter's salary. So Alicia goes to work at a big, rich law firm, where a partner remembers admiring her ability in law school.
They sell their house to pay Peter's legal bills and Alicia moves into an apartment with their 14-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter. The boy sets about using his considerable computer skills in what may be a vain effort to prove his father was framed. Plunged into a murderously busy job, Alicia has to rely for help on her grudging, unlovable and interfering mother-in-law. The Good Wife demonstrates how much has changed in television portrayals of the law. In the beginning they dealt with little outside the courtroom. The first long-running legal drama was Perry Mason (1957 to 1966), with Raymond Burr, and I can't even remember whether Perry was married. In The Defenders (1961-1965), the father-and-son team of defence lawyers, E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed, said very little about their out-of-court life. L.A. Law (1986-1994) made romance a part of everyday life in a big firm and produced a boom in law-school applications.
The McKenzie, Brackman partners seemed anxious to keep sex in the office, where it belonged. On Law & Order (which has been running since 1990 in several versions) we get no closer to private life than an occasional sentence from the DA, Sam Waterston, about his late father's alcoholism.
But The Good Wife asks us to worry about how a busy lawyer keeps her house going, how children are affected by the scandals of adults and how a mother deals with her children as they face problems no adolescent should have to deal with.
Julianna Margulies, who served for five years as a nurse on ER and played a real-estate agent dangerously in love with Tony himself on The Sopranos, makes an excellent Alicia. She deepens and complicates a part that is already well written. Naturally, it's a feminist fantasy, about a heroine's virtuous triumph over grim odds. In her new job, Alicia lucks into every good case on the dockets of Chicago and (while always frightened at the beginning) gives a virtuoso performance every time out.
Miraculously, she avoids corporate law and spends all her time on criminal or near-criminal cases. The situations echo Law & Order and similar exercises in dramatic populism: widows about to be cheated out of justified compensation claims by a cruel manufacturer, rich parents with snotty teenagers and of course an innocent man unjustly convicted by an uncaring state. In one case she proves that her own defence witness committed the crime. She successfully defends, against a murder charge, the son of former friends who have ostracized her since the scandal.
Fortunately, she has a hidden killer instinct that she usually hides but knows how to unleash at just the right moment, when nobody expects it.
The scripts keep the original story alive by involving her in cases where she can borrow from her husband's knowledge. She wishes she could scorn his help but inevitably she discovers that as the state attorney until recently, he's a source of first-class information.
As executive producers, Ridley Scott and Tony Scott, that endlessly talented British brother act, responsible over the years for Blade Runner, Gladiator, Thelma & Louise, the current series Numb3rs and much else, have contributed their acute sense of tone and their imaginative way with talent. Chris Noth, as the jailed husband, has constructed a harder and more enclosed personality than he's displayed in earlier assignments as Det. Mike Logan on Law & Order and Mr. Big on Sex and the City. He's perfect when delivering the typical apology-that-is-not-an-apology: "I'm a flawed human being and I've paid a heavy price." He's altogether credible when he blandly assures his wife that after she forgives him they will go back to normal. "It will never be normal again," she informs him. Imprisoned, he's vulnerable, but we have no trouble imagining that until recently he was a self-righteous Spitzer-type prosecutor, widely loathed.
An investigator for Alicia's law firm, Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjaba), demonstrates a successful combination of arduous research and sex appeal. Before approaching a cop for some information, she genially opens the top button on her blouse, looks down and explains, "These are better than subpoenas." The minor roles suggest a casting director with flare and ambition. Joe Morton, the star of a much-admired John Sayles film from 1984, The Brother from Another Planet, plays the erring husband's lawyer. A judge is played by Peter Riegert, the co-star of a charming 1988 film comedy, Crossing Delancey.
Christine Baranski, playing a law partner who promises to help Alicia but mostly ignores her, at one point states the subtext of the series. She gestures at a picture on her office wall and says, "If she can do it, so can you." The photo shows Hillary Clinton.
The Good Wife airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on Global and CBS.