"Mrs." It's an honorific that's all over CBS' new show The Good Wife, and it's a sign of how much of a woman's identity is bound up in that one little word-how much security and yet vulnerability it contains-that it leaps out in neon every time it's used. Julianna Margulies plays Mrs. Alicia Florick, wife of disgraced Illinois State's Attorney Peter Florick (Chris Noth), who is sitting in prison on charges that he misused public funds.
But a corruption indictment isn't what has a wan-looking Mrs. Florick standing beside her man in front of the flashing lights of a mob of press. Like Mrs. Spitzer, Mrs. Sanford, Mrs. Edwards, Mrs. Ensign, and all the other unfortunate real-life Mrs. before them, she has just become a member of a club no woman wants to join-the wife of a public figure caught cheating.
Trying to maintain brave faces next to the men who betrayed them: That's where the story stops for most of these women. They may appear on Oprah or write a tell-all book to discuss events leading up to their humiliation, but with few exceptions we rarely get a glimpse of the lives they go on to lead once they start picking up the pieces. The Good Wife changes that, revisiting the political-fall-from-grace theme but shifting the focus to the part of the story the tabloid media rarely takes an interest in. We hear about Peter's scandal-all the prostitutes were over 20, Alicia has to tell her shell-shocked teenage daughter-but we don't see it.
What we see is the fallout. To pay her husband's legal bills, Alicia has to re-enter the legal profession as a junior associate after 15 years away. She has to endure the pity of male colleagues who barely disguise their amusement at the scandal and the judgment of female colleagues who, even as they offer encouraging words, subtly suggest she had it coming for choosing to be nothing more than a housewife in the first place. Worst of all she has to shepherd her two children through an information age in which all their classmates have not only heard of their father's indiscretion, they've seen the videotape on YouTube.
With all that to deal with, it's little wonder that Alicia hasn't had time to dwell on the state of her marriage, and it's to the show's credit that their relationship isn't something handled and dispensed with in the first episode. Her husband has unquestionably acted the cad, but he isn't a one-note villain. Handsome and charismatic as Peter-the-politician is, Noth also confers on him a whiff of something pathetic.
Sitting in the prison visiting room, he looks bewildered and earnest. Most of all, he looks like a man who loves and even appreciates his wife in spite of everything he's done. Reaching for her hand, he tries to be upbeat, "If they overturn it, everything goes back to normal." Pulling that same hand back, Alicia replies, "Peter, it's never going back to normal." And of course it isn't, even if she ultimately decides to try and salvage their union.
The rest of the show is your basic legal drama, made engaging thanks to the warm and intelligent presence of Margulies. As Alicia she traverses the obstacles and insecurities her new situation presents with determination and grace. Perhaps even a little too much grace. When, in a scene ripped straight from the news crawl, Peter's willowy blonde call-girl announces to a television crew that she's writing a book about her experiences with the state attorney, Alicia doesn't do what most wives would-burst into tears and call a friend to hear that she's prettier, smarter, classier, fill-in-the blank-er than the home-wrecker. Instead, she calmly turns the set off.
If The Good Wife can plumb a little deeper than that to the pain any real-life Mrs. would suffer from such an ordeal while maintaining the respect it shows for marriage in the premiere, it will be a worthy option for viewers who appreciate thoughtful storytelling more than salacious headlines.