The Good Wife

Julianna Margulies on-ramps and stands by her man.

Julianna Margulies and Chris Noth in The Good Wife

The Good Wife (CBS, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET) is the best-rated new show of the fall (excepting NCIS: Los Angeles, a spinoff of a hit crime show) and the only legal drama now airing on network television (excepting Law & Order and its spinoffs, which are, of course, 50 percent order). Thus is it worthy of critical consideration, and thus do I sit here hunt-and-pecking this article with my right hand while holding a rhetorical prop in my left: a 10-foot pole. (Mine happens to have been sculpted from the tusk of a majestic narwhal harpooned in Baffin Bay some centuries back.) You see, The Good Wife stars Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick, the much better half of a public servant felled by his craving for hookers, and I flourish the 10-foot pole so as not to touch the matter of my colleague Eliot Spitzer with it. Given this self-censorship, it seems right not to crack sex jokes about any other politicians, either. Thus I will not be wondering what pages of the Kama Sutra John Edwards might have consulted to discover exciting new positions that would not muss his precious hair.

The series began with Peter Florrick, the straying husband played by Chris Noth, announcing his resignation as the Cook County state’s attorney before the flashbulbs of all the national media. Later, graphics rendered the show’s title in a typeface closely resembling the Didot of Vanity Fair headlines, implying that the scandal is worthy of the glossy attentions of a Dominick Dunne. Why should the whole country want to sniff the dirty linen of a local politician in Chicago? I suppose it would help that the vice crime is tied into a corruption case and that a video of the dalliance captures Peter engaged in the faintly campy practice of shrimping. Also, the posited intensity of media frenzy within the show enables CBS to promote both its news division’s Web site and its unwatchable morning program.

Six months after Peter resigns, he sits incarcerated in one of the most country-clubbish prisons in screen history. (The inmate uniforms seem to involve Van Heusen dress shirts.) Meanwhile, Alicia has been cast out of Highland Park—a very nice North Shore suburb here spoken of in oddly reverential tones—and into the wretchedness of a three-bedroom apartment in a high-rise downtown. To pay the bills and—no less important from a dramatic standpoint—to reclaim her independence, she returns to the workforce after an absence of 13 years, signing on as an associate at a fancy law firm and soon representing wronged women and troubled young men. My own attorney, unmindful of the necessary stupidities of primetime television, objected to Alicia’s swift rise to prominence: “Dude, she has a nice suit, but come on.”

Also well-costumed is Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry, late of Gilmore Girls), Alicia’s rival on the partnership track. His superiors have taken notice of the long hours he puts in and the Brioni suits he puts on. Cary is the juiciest character here—kind and condescending by turns, always baby-faced and fleetingly shifty-eyed, worthy of Alicia’s respect but not her trust. It’s a shame that the show again departs from reality by giving Alicia her own office as opposed to cooping her and Cary up in the same room. Meanwhile, the firm’s top litigator (Christine Baranski) wears interesting shoulder pads, and its in-house investigator (Archie Panjabi), who functions as Alicia’s sidekick, has a thing for leather. She and her aggressive boots do something to up the series’ sex appeal. Undoing a button on her blouse before digging for info, she brags of the persuasive powers of her ta-tas. “These are better than subpoenas.”

Alicia, for her part, is prim and professional, revealing deep cleavage only in flashbacks to those halcyon days before she spent her nights toiling over fairly dull cases. (Could it be that network legal shows are in decline because they’ve exhausted so much material? Last week, The Good Wife self-consciously ripped its story straight from three-year-old headlines, with a stripper accusing a privileged brat of rape and her lawyers citing the Duke lacrosse case as a plot-line precedent.) With the drama so thin, it must be the richness of Alicia’s situation that makes 13 million people a week want to enjoy her company. She hasn’t left Peter—and smart money says she won’t—but her anger at him is tempered by a tentative loyalty. She has it both ways, standing by her man while rushing toward a new sense of self, existing as an operatically suffering wife and a high-functioning single mom. “You identify with too many clients, you burn out,” someone says to this avenging angel. And if you get enough viewers to identify with your heroine, you’ve got a relative hit.