4. Plotting Doesn’t Have to be Plodding

Photo: David M. Russell/Courtesy of CBS

The Good Wife

Balancing an efficient, self-contained story that leaves viewers satisfied after 42 minutes with a more complicated narrative that weaves through 23 episodes is no easy task. Tilt one way, and you end up with yet another generic crime/corpse/case-of-the-week show. Tilt the other, and you can become so entangled in your own mythology that your audience quickly jumps ship (see every series that failed to become the new Lost). Which makes CBS’s The Good Wife—a series that deftly intermingles half a dozen story lines with some of the sharpest courtroom scenes since the ten-years-past heyday of Law & Order—the rarest of network shows.

When it premiered last fall, the premise hardly seemed built to last beyond the headlines that inspired it: Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), wife of a disgraced politician Peter (Chris Noth, walking that charm-versus-sleaze line as skillfully as ever), tries to juggle motherhood with resuming her law career while considering whether or not to save her marriage. Yet the series has managed to remain gripping enough that we are already dreading the season finale. We asked Robert and Michelle King, the husband-and-wife writing team behind the show, for tips next season’s new dramas might want to heed:

4A. Know where you’re going.
Before the pilot aired, says Robert, “we knew we wanted Alicia on the stand arguing for her husband’s release in the eighth episode, Peter coming home with electronic monitoring in fourteen, Alicia kissing her boss Will [Josh Charles] in seventeen.” And they stuck to that schedule exactly; the May 25 wrap-up is, says Michelle, “dead-on” with their original plan.

4B. Dare to rethink characters.
“We started this project thinking we needed and wanted antagonists,” says Michelle, “and as the season moved forward, we kind of fell in love with the actors. So some of the characters softened up a bit.” And none more thoroughly than Diane Lockhart, the senior law partner played by Christine Baranski. “My character was supposed to be strong, stern, and intimidating, but after the first episode aired, the general consensus was, ‘Oh, you’re going to be the bitch who gives Alicia a hard time.’ ” The six-time Emmy nominee feared slipping into a stereotype, but she was new to dramas; it took her “six-to-ten episodes” to find her sea legs. She decided to play Diane as “a serious woman at the top of her game—not a bitch,” calibrating her character that way even in wordless reaction shots. “I had to learn that you can choose to do very little, and that’s okay.” Meanwhile, the Kings, drawing on Baranski’s warmth, intelligence, and comic juice, started redefining Diane as something more complex and “less buttoned-down.” The turning point came in episode eleven, when Diane was (inaccurately) outed as a lesbian in a newscast. Baranski’s choice to react with a surprised giggle that erupted into a belly laugh so delighted viewers that it landed on YouTube—and startled the show’s creators into a fuller rethink. By season’s end, Diane was a lively, funny, outspoken liberal with a full-blown romantic subplot. “It’s a revelation to play an accomplished woman who isn’t angry, lonely and frustrated.”

4C. Don’t get mired in will-they-or-won’t-they plotlines.
Although viewers are intrigued by a potential Alicia-Will romance, the possibility won’t be teased and tortured to the point where TV bloggers start writing moony posts about their “Willicia” fantasies. “We don’t want it to take over,” says Robert. “And we don’t want people to think that Will is a white knight for Alicia. He’s a Chicago lawyer, and he’s made plenty of compromises. In some ways, he’s very much like Peter.”

4D. There’s strength in mystery.
“So many characters on TV push their backstory at you,” says Robert. “If you met them in a bar, you wouldn’t want that much information.” Margulies, an actress of great natural reserve, helps to set that tone. But the Kings really go to town with Kalinda (Archie Panjabi), the ambisexual (for now), sanguine private investigator who, says Robert, “doesn’t like the American idea that every part of your soul should be bared. We won’t cheat the audience—we’ll continue to unpeel her. But very slowly.”

4E. Keep the stakes high.
Viewers who were startled to see Vernon Jordan show up as himself last week with an offer to buy out the firm should ready themselves for more as the Kings plunge further into politics in season two. “We’d love to fold more of our fictional action in with real Washington players,” says Robert. “That’s where we want to head.”

4. Plotting Doesn’t Have to be Plodding