"The Good Wife" Confronts Bad Life Choices

The season finale of TV's best new drama appears poised to plunge deeper into morally ambiguous territory. Will the title character stand by her man – or stand up for herself?

By Jere Hester
|  Monday, May 24, 2010  |  Updated 10:30 PM CDT
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Cast Aside: Actors Who Almost Had the Part

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Juliana Margulies plays the title character in "The Good Wife," which is headed for a big first-season finale Tuesday.

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More than two years after he resigned in disgrace as governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer is back in the news.

One day last week, he was musing about running for office again. The next, his name was floated as a possible CNN regular contributor. There he was yet again, the subject of a poll in which voters told him to forget about reviving his political career – at least this year.

As Spitzer continued his quasi-comeback, a parallel, if fictitious, scenario played out on "The Good Wife,” the CBS standout series that will end its first season Tuesday night as TV’s best new drama.

All indications are the show, inspired by the Spitzer mess and other gubernatorial shenanigans, will conclude the season with the title character mired in the deep end of the pool of moral ambiguity that's slowly pulled her in during the first 22 episodes.

A quick recap: Alicia Florrick (Juliana Margulies) is married to the former state's attorney for Chicago, who was taken down by a sex scandal that’s clearly his fault, and corruption charges that might not be.

Alicia, the mother of two teenagers, goes back to work at a financially and ethically challenged law firm where her boss is an old law school pal who always wanted to be more than just friends.                

As her husband Peter (Chris Noth) has wended his way from prison to house arrest to freedom, we've seen Alicia confront constant dilemmas, making increasingly difficult choices – all of which she’s rationalized as necessary to meet her primary goal: keeping the family together.

Alicia has gone from avoiding cases involving her husband to making a deal with the devil who is Peter’s political consultant (Alan Cumming) to save her job. The price: she tacitly agrees to back the comeback campaign Peter is about to launch. She does so at the expense of a now-former colleague who stands to become a formidable foe.

If this sounds like soap opera terrain, the folks behind and in front of the camera have deftly avoided melodrama in favor of intelligent adult drama that’s often at least a step ahead of the viewer. Helping the matter is that the storyline usually is the backdrop to strong “Law & Order”-type plots that would be enough drama for most programs.

“The Good Wife” manages to weave disparate elements into each episode. Unlike the “Law & Order,” the individual stories aren’t ripped from the headlines, but the premise of the show is.

Which offers another level of interest as the real-life stories head in directions that the creators of the “The Good Wife,” a show partially built on unpredictability, probably couldn’t have imagined.

Spitzer isn't the only scandal-tarred member of the gubernatorial hall of-shame back in the public eye this month. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford admitted reuniting with the Argentinean woman who stole his heart – and his senses. Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, seeking a delay in his corruption trial, got the ear last week of U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

As for the wives, Jenny Sanford divorced her husband and wrote a memoir. Patti Blagojevich, who shares a foul mouth her husband, infamously ate a tarantula in the Costa Rican jungle while taking his place on “I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!”

In the middle, we have Silda Spitzer, who literally stood by her husband’s side amid his downfall and has remained with him. Even as Eliot Spitzer revives his life in the limelight, his wife hasn’t publicly shared her anguish, though her private hell has been chronicled in two books about the scandal.

Alicia Florrick does a good job at not betraying what she’s feeling, because she knows doing so might hurt her kids – and maybe because she’s still figuring things out. But life-changing choices likely will be made on Tuesday’s season finale.

The title of the episode is “Running,” which pretty much captures the ambiguity that is the show’s essence. Will Alicia stand by Peter’s side as he announces his run for office or will she run from him into the arms of her boss? Will she stand by her man or stand up for herself?

Perhaps those are the wrong questions – on “The Good Wife,” matters of good or bad, right or wrong, stay or go, are never quite that clear cut.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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