Getting a show produced and broadcast on television—not to mention keeping it there—is nearly impossible these days. Each year, fewer and fewer TV pilots get picked up by networks, and, of those that do, a very select few find an audience and can be considered a hit.
In the legal genre, even powerhouse Executive Producers like Dick Wolf (Law & Order franchise) and former lawyer-turned-scribe David E. Kelly (Boston Legal, Ally McBeal, Michelle Pfeiffer sex partner) are only as good as their last hit. Not to mention, it’s been a long time since television has seen ratings anywhere near LA Law numbers.
But in the fall of 2009, a new hit was born. It is of the legal drama variety. And, ironically, it was brought in by two non-lawyers—the writing team of Robert and Michelle King, who are also a married couple. Together, they created The Good Wife for CBS, in which the opening scene of the pilot is a press conference, where a politician (played by Sex and the City’s Chris Noth) resigns and admits to some “indiscretions” while his shell-shocked wife stands watching… Sound familiar? The wife, forced to now support her family, returns to her roots as a Big Firm lawyer. But she’s more than a little rusty.
Not that the King’s, who previously penned the short-lived In Justice for ABC, would call their show a big hit. Though The Good Wife has received widespread critical praise (one of 2009’s 10 best), impressive ratings (14.1 million viewers on December 15) and lots of award attention (a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for the show’s star, Julianna Margulies, and a Writers Guild Award Nomination for Best New Drama), the King’s are relatively humble, preferring to talk more about what they’d like to improve upon than their accolades.
Bitter Lawyer recently caught up with the Kings to find out why a husband-and-wife team decided to write about the timely topic of infidelity in politics, how two laymen get the legal stuff right (or mostly right), and why court is so damned funny when you’re not the one litigating.
Let’s start with the elephant in the writers’ room. You’re a husband-and-wife writing team who created a show that begins with a very public admission of infidelity. What’s going on there?[Laughing.]
Michelle: I didn’t realize that was the elephant in the room. I mean, if the question is, did one of us have a very public affair, the answer is no.
Robert: We have a good, happy marriage. But when it comes to writing the show, we’re really interested in exploring the boundaries of marriage. That’s what it’s about for us. In particular, we’re very interested in the public side of [the Florrick’s] marriage and how that plays out when they’re alone. There’s a lot of great dramatic tension to explore between what happens between Peter (Chris Noth) and Alicia (Julianna Margulies) when they’re alone, and what happens to them when their marriage is viewed in a more public setting.
How did you come up with the idea for The Good Wife?
Michelle: Robert, do you want to take that one?
You both want to pass the ball?[Laughing]
Michelle: We came up with the idea about a year and half ago. There had been this waterfall of these kinds of scandals, from Bill and Hillary [Clinton], to Dick Morris, to Eliot Spitzer, to name just a few. I think they’re all over our culture. And there was always this image of the husband up there apologizing and the wife standing next to him. I think the show began when we asked, “What are they thinking?” And Robert and I started talking about it from there.
But infidelity is pretty universal. What made you decide to ground your show in a law firm?
Michelle: You know, what’s interesting about a lot of these political scandals is that the women are lawyers, too. Hillary [Clinton] is a lawyer. Elizabeth Edwards is a lawyer. I think that got us thinking along those lines. That is, we knew she had to go back to work, and we had so many female lawyers to draw on.
Robert: Each of us also has a lot of relatives who are lawyers. And, to some extent, the show is really about a life transition for Alicia. The infidelity set that in motion [for her character], but I wanted to write about people redefining their roles.
This was before the economy turned really bad, but I think a lot of people were in transition just before the bottom fell out on the economy. I know that’s the way it felt talking to my sister, who left a bigger firm to start her own solo practice around the time that we started developing this show. I wanted to write about that kind of personal transition.
Neither of you are lawyers. Do you think that helps you focus more on the dramatic elements of the show without getting too bogged down in legal issues?
Robert: We wish we were lawyers. It would make writing the show a lot easier.
Michelle: I don’t think it helps at all. We always start with the idea of a story, but we’re always talking with lawyers who are technical advisors to make it more authentic.
What do they tell you?
Robert: It’s always a negotiation between creating good fiction and keeping it from being absurd, or melodramatic, or implausible. So, a lot of times, we have an idea, and a lawyer tells us that what we think should happen dramatically never really would, or it might not play out exactly as we see it.
What truisms of the law do you find yourself sacrificing?
Robert: It’s more in the minutia, the details, and a lot of that, I think, is because there’s a tremendous time crunch. But I know that we do things wrong that drive our technical consultant up the wall. For example, we’ve used a stock shot of the criminal court, when it’s really civil court. Or, sometimes we have a Cook County sheriff arresting someone when it should have been Chicago PD. And I know we’ve messed up by referring to Peter’s post-conviction issues as appeals. Mostly, though, we try to remain faithful to the bigger issues that serve the drama, even if there are small inaccuracies.
Michelle: And there’s a long, proud history of tweaking the law for dramatic purposes when you talk about legal shows.
Speaking of that proud history, we found an interesting quote about the show from the legal blogosphere, and we’re curious to get your reaction.
Robert: Go for it.
The Law And More blog wrote (HERE), “Every iconic TV law program had its specialty. In ‘Boston Legal,’ that was cunning ways to win. ‘LA Law’ delved into personalities. And of course ‘Perry Mason,’ so primitive, was about justice. Tonight ‘The Good Wife,’ which has a shot at iconic, confirmed that its focus is the political—all forms of it.”
How do you guys see your show in relation to the Pantheon of legal shows?
Michelle: I’m not sure if half a season is enough to qualify you for iconic.
Robert: Yeah, I don’t know if I’d put us in the Pantheon. Maybe the outhouse next to the Pantheon [for now]. Time will tell.
But as to the political point, I think that comment is right on the money. That’s exactly what this show is about. Our interest in the law has to do with the gamesmanship in the profession. You know, we think of Alicia as this very honorable, ethical person, and what’s fascinating, to us, is to see how she bumps up against a very hard game of the law.
So, where do you look for inspiration when you write about office politics? Are these scenarios specific to the law, or are they more universal?
Michelle: I think it’s the latter. Definitely. To some extent, anyone who works in an office has an appreciation for that kind of politics.
Robert: But one thing that we always try and remain true to when we’re writing about office politics is that we show a very passive-aggressive style of office politics. Literally, Alicia is swimming with sharks. I never worked in an office, but I used to write movies, and there’s a ton of politics in that. Everyone can be very nice to your face, but behind your back, it’s another story. So, I think that’s what Alicia keeps running into. It’s all polite smiles when she talks to other people at the firm, but the reality is that there’s a lot of backstabbing.
Are any of the show’s characters based on real lawyers?
Robert: Sometimes we pick up mannerism and character traits from lawyers we know. It’s nothing all that overt. But one example comes from my sister. There’s a character in the show who says, “Cha-Ching” whenever something goes his way in court. My sister actually told me an anecdote about a lawyer she came across who did that.
One of the interesting things about the show is that although it’s not a comedy, you often play courtroom scenes for laughs, and you have a lot of fun with judges. Why is that?
Robert: A couple of reasons. First, I think there’s a lot more humor in court than gets portrayed on most shows. I’ve read a lot of trial transcripts, and you get an appreciation for these funny little moments in a trial. For example, you see a judge make a ruling, and then a minute later, he changes his mind and reverses himself. I think judges aren’t generally written with enough humanity. We take them too seriously.
But I think the other reason why we go for comedy in the court is that there’s something very funny going on. After all, there you are as a lawyer thinking that you’re going to be undone by your adversary when out of nowhere the judge intrudes and everything changes. If you choose to play that dramatically, I think you run a big risk of becoming melodrama. That never rings true to me… you don’t see people just crack up on the witness stand.
But if you think about the courtroom from a different perspective, you see that a lot of what happens can be quite humorous. I mean, you’ve got this fickle god who can come out and pull the rug out from under two people are engaged in a struggle—albeit with words—that’s as brutal as any blood sport. That’s funny… from a certain perspective.
The bottom line is, when I see courtroom stuff on television, I change the channel. So, we wanted to create something that’s fun to watch.
What did you think of Julianna Margulies being nominated for a Golden Globe? Does it change any aspect of working on the show?
Michelle: It’s great, but it doesn’t change the day-to-day.
Robert: But we did get a nice ratings bump when it was announced. That was appreciated.
Michelle: That’s the nice thing. I t helps bring attention both to Julianna’s great work and the show.
Robert: And to be selfish here, I think she really deserves it. We’re just in awe of her skill. We don’t like to write a lot of dialogue because we don’t think that’s how people really express themselves… that is, they don’t always tell you what they’re thinking. So, that puts a lot of pressure on Julianna to show the story in her face—and I have to say, she’s really great at that.
So, what kind of stories will we see Julianna reacting to in the second half of the season?
Robert: The main thing that we’ll be teasing is whether or not her husband, Peter, will be getting out [of prison]. The rest… you’ll just have to watch for.
The Good Wife returns for the second half of its first season with a new episode on Tuesday at 10/9c on CBS.
Robert King, Julianna Margulies and Michelle King speak about The Good Wife during the CBS 2009 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour.