Writing 'The Good Wife': Art Imitates Life?

In the CBS drama, The Good Wife, a scorned political spouse struggles with standing by her man, or pursuing her own dreams. It's an all-too-familiar political story, rife with sexuality, calculations and corruption. Series co-creators Robert and Michelle King describe writing for the Emmy-nominated series.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

In recent years we've seen too many wives publicly embarrassed by politician husbands exposed as adulterers. The names include Jenny Sanford, Silda Spitzer and Alicia Florrick. That last name, though, is fictional. The scandal and its repercussions form the subject of CBS-TV's hit drama "The Good Wife." Julianna Margulies stars and struggles to choose between her old flame and new boss and that philanderer of a husband, Peter. And in tonight's second season premiere, Peter finds her in the kitchen after work, listening to the radio.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Good Wife")

(Soundbite of "All Things Considered" theme)

Ms. JULIANNA MARGULIES (Actor): (as Alicia Florrick) I'm almost done.

(Soundbite of "All Things Considered")

Ms. MELISSA BLOCK (NPR): This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

Ms. MARGULIES: (as Alicia) What are you up to?

(Soundbite of "All Things Considered")

Mr. DAVID GREENE (NPR): The U.S. Senate today voted to help small businesses. It approved...

Ms. MARGULIES: (as Alicia) Peter...

Mr. CHRIS NOTH (as Peter Florrick) I saw you in court today.

Ms. MARGULIES: (as Alicia) Yeah?

Mr. NOTH (as Peter) You are amazing.

Ms. MARGULIES: (as Alicia) Peter, I've got to...

(Soundbite of kiss)

Ms. MARGULIES: (as Alicia) ...study.

CONAN: If you'd like to talk with the executive producers and creators of "The Good Wife," if you've ever wondered how TV programs are developed and put together, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Robert and Michelle King join us from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. Nice to have you on the program with us today.

Mr. ROBERT KING (Creator, Producer, "The Good Wife"): Thank you.

Ms. MICHELLE KING (Creator, Producer, "The Good Wife"): Thank you.

CONAN: And we figured you had a choice for that scene. The audio track...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: ...Barry White or Melissa Block.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KING: It's very romantic, isn't it?

CONAN: Yes, it is. And we know exactly when it was, because David Greene was filling in for Robert Siegel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KING: Yes, we just put that in the mix on Friday. We just tried to get something very current.

CONAN: It's interest - in the mix on Friday, that's interesting. The audio, the way it switches back and forth from different perspectives is - we were listening very carefully as we were choosing cuts for the billboard and for this segment, and it's quite interesting how the audio track goes back and forth from different perspectives.

Mr. KING: Yes. We wanted - I mean, it's - so much of this is a satire of liberal ethics, and they're having a little sex scene in there to NPR. So we wanted to then have their voices rise and then NPR is buried.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KING: And then near the end NPR comes up to full force as if it's kind of filling Julianna's head.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, we will not mention or not venture to conjecture what that means.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But, in any case - I should mention, of course, you are a husband and wife team. And I wonder, how much of your marriage ends up in the program?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KING: Not that much, actually. We're pretty different from Alicia and Peter, mercifully.

Mr. KING: Yes. And this was not us imitating having sex in the bathroom to NPR.

CONAN: Okay. Well, good. We can get that thought out of our minds.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It is interesting that every character in this show has alter -the mother-in-law, the kids all have, you know, agendas.

Mr. KING: Yeah. I mean, one of the things we wanted to show was that politics wasn't something that just happened out there in the world, that it was something that's happening in this family unit. It's happening at work. And Julianna's character, who had kind of kept politics at bay, finds that once she opens the door to it, it starts happening everywhere.

CONAN: She, of course - well, her husband goes to jail, partly as a result of this scandal, and so she has to go out and become an earner again, use that law degree she earned so many years ago, and finds that, of course, her husband's name is part of her cachet, which is, of course, appalling too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KING: Yes. I mean we thought it would be fun to see that you see the plus side for her but also the negative side. So many of the judges that she's in front of think badly of her because of the association with the husband. But then the politics at work work in her favor, because they think they can get some added advantage because of her spouse.

CONAN: And, of course, she has, I'd say, pretty attractive choices. Chris Noth as Peter, the husband, and Josh Charles as her boss at the law firm.

Mr. KING: Yeah. And not only that, they're very well acted choices too.

CONAN: Yes, yes.

Mr. KING: I mean we're thrilled with what they're offering. I mean, in our minds both of them have these negatives. I know there are people who would argue that you go one direction over another and argue, you know, either sanctity of marriage or - but this is a crush they've had for decades. And what we just loving is that it's something you can dial up and dial down with each episode based on who seems to be doing the most corrupt thing at the moment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: At the moment, yeah. And of course, the great Christine Baranski is the other law partner, so she can certainly hold her own with anybody. I do have to ask, though, Josh Charles keeps a baseball on his desk which he constantly throws up in the air. Is this a nod Sport Night, his previous show?

Ms. KING: No, it wasn't, actually. It was just the fact that the character is a sports fan.

CONAN: Okay.

Mr. KING: And what's great is that it works out with who Josh is. I mean, it really is building off of Josh's character, too.

CONAN: Tell us a little bit how the program developed. We can see the genesis pretty clearly. The good wife, she stands next to her husband at the lectern as he confesses to his infidelity and vows to fight the corruption charges against him.

Mr. KING: We - when we were developing the show, when we created it, there were two - no, there were three scandals happening almost right at the same time, the Eliot Spitzer one, Haggard and the Craig scandals were right within the same region. And all of them seemed to have some similarity in that the wives were standing by their husbands and where kind of being dragged through the mud just like the husband was. And we couldn't think of any less - any worse spot to be in than to be the person who is not even the one who did the bad thing, but is kind of being dragged through the mud by the person who did the bad thing.

Ms. KING: And then we started to look at, you know, some of these other scandals: the Clintons, Dick Morris. And what you saw over and over, so often, the marriages survived. So we started wondering, okay, okay, what is going on with these unions that they managed to continue through that? And then on top of it, we noticed that a bunch of these women were actually attorneys. And so that just got us thinking, as well.

CONAN: And the scandal, of course, is an episode. The repercussions of the scandal and how the relationship changes, that's a TV series.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KING: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that we were seeing is how the scandal never kind of goes away for some of these people, because either in the Internet there is advantage in threshing it back up or, in fact, someone does a TV show based from someone's life, is another way.

So, I mean, the bottom is the pop culture crossing over with the political culture kind of goes haywire and goes crazy about sex and sexual scandal. So one of the things we wanted to play with was how you never kind of escape the tag that was put on you even a year ago at this point.

CONAN: We mentioned some of the cast members. I have to mention my absolute favorite. I mean, theres so many in the show. But the character of Eli Gold played by the great Alan Cumming - I mean, among the many people with agendas, he's got the most agendas.

Mr. KING: Yeah. I mean...

Ms. KING: He's splendid, isn't he?

CONAN: He's great.

Mr. KING: And it's so fun to write for. I mean, what was really good is we saw pretty quickly last year - he was just coming in for a three episode arc, just going on for three to four episodes. We just saw how quickly he took the whole show and just kind of broke it apart. So we signed him up very quickly for the second year. So he's in every episode we've written so far. And he's just extraordinary. I mean, he's so smart and Machiavellian. And you just kind of want to see how he manipulates people. And then he also finds himself over his head when this girlfriend of the son comes back, Becca.

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. KING: Who also is this fun, kind of controversial...

CONAN: Oh, his scene with her last year was just too much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KING: What's great about him, too, is he's just a horror movie fan too. So there's always him dropping in these allusions to "Drag Me to Hell and "When a Stranger Calls.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. We're talking with Robert King and Michelle King, the co-creators and writers of hit CBS series, "The Good Wife." If youve ever wondered how a TV series is developed and how you keep it running, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

Jill(ph) is calling from Chicago, the city where the show is set.

JILL (Caller): Hello. I really love the series. And my one disappointment is it just doesn't seem there are enough episodes. I tried to keep track of everything, but they always would intermingle (unintelligible), so I don't even know how many original episodes there were. And I'm curious about how many there will be this season. Thank you. I will listen and hang up.

CONAN: Okay, Jill. Thank you.

Ms. KING: There were 23 last season and there are, right now, going to be 22 for sure, perhaps there'll be 23. And if we tried to do one more, we would drop dead from exhaustion.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KING: And we realized and CBS realized how that was a problem last year where theyd throw in repeats, because there is a serialized nature to the show. One of the reasons we started a week late is that we can do 10 in a row, and then there will be the break for Christmas. And then, in theory, we'll start the year with also a quite a few in a row. It's...

CONAN: I recommend getting a cold and watching them all in a row on on-demand.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KING: Yeah. You're so good. Well, good. That's goes to our DVD sales.

CONAN: Okay. And 23? Didn't the standard used to be 26?

Mr. KING: I think a while ago it was 26, then it became 22. And I think some of the networks have been trying to take advantage. Our hiatus right now is two weeks, so don't give them any ideas.

CONAN: Okay. And another number in terms of episodes - is 100 still the hallmark? At that point you can say, a-ha, we're going to be in syndication forever?

Mr. KING: I think in network - but syndication has been undercut so much. But in network, that's really the magic number that everybody loves.

CONAN: Why?

Mr. KING: And - I think because it's enough of a bank of shows that they can repeat them and you feel like you're not seeing the same repeat over and over. And I don't know, I think, how everybody met the magic number 100. But it still is what's being talked about.

CONAN: Okay. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Tom(ph), Tom with us from Grand Rapids.

TOM (Caller): Hi. I was curious how you guys got started, the big break, the story from the beginning. And how - what maybe has been involved or hard work and all that good stuff?

Mr. KING: Very much hard work mixed with luck, as with most things. I started writing for movies. I started with Roger Corman, doing a killer cockroach movie.

CONAN: Oh, you're kidding.

Mr. KING: No - called "The Nest." It's so good. You have to run out and rent it.

TOM: (Unintelligible) was that?

Mr. KING: What?

TOM: How long ago was that?

Mr. KING: That wouldve been 1988. Oh, my God.

TOM: Wow.

Mr. KING: Yeah, I know. And so then I was writing features for a while and then Michelle and I had an idea to work on a border project together that didn't seem like it was - made sense to be a movie, it made more sense as a TV show, and we pitched that.

Ms. KING: And that was about 10 years ago.

Mr. KING: That was 10 years ago. For the last 10 years, we've been working almost exclusively in TV because it's more fun.

CONAN: And...

TOM: Well, that is so interesting. Now - I know this - how about before '88? Was it - there something that - somebody that inspired you? Did you get a break, somebody encouraged you? How did it work?

Mr. KING: A lot of people who break into the business do it through reading scripts, and that's what I did.

Ms. KING: And I did that as well.

Mr. KING: It's a way to see what's out there. So you work for a company, you read scripts and you do something called coverage, which allows the executive not to read the script. They just read your synopsis of what's in the script. But it's a good way to get adjusted to the idea of reading scripts every day.

CONAN: It's also a good way to get adjusted to the idea that maybe you can write better than most of those people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Tom, thanks very much for the phone call.

TOM: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Robert and Michelle King, the co-developers and executive producers of the CBS series "The Good Wife." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Lynn(ph), Lynn with us from Philadelphia.

LYNN (Caller): Yes, hi. I'm a longtime listener, first-time caller. And I love the program...

CONAN: Thank you.

LYNN: ...both TALK OF THE NATION and "The Good Wife."

CONAN: Oh, good.

LYNN: And...

CONAN: A rare double.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYNN: And I'd like to ask the Kings, I find it really interesting than an African-American church and an African-American minister were chosen by Peter to, I guess, quote-unquote, be redeemed by or with. Why was that choice made?

CONAN: To be fair, I think it was chosen by Eli, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYNN: Well, yes, by Eli, but what exactly was the thought process there, that black people are more forgiving of infidelities or we have a more forgiving culture? Like - it makes me think a little bit about some of who Bill Clinton went to in terms of after his scandal came out...

CONAN: Vernon Jordan, yes.

LYNN: ...and the outlets he pursued. And I'm thinking a little bit like, what exactly was that choice about?

Mr. KING: We have a great room, a writer's room of writers, and of the things that we all want the show to do was explore issues of race.

LYNN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KING: And sometimes in a race-neutral way, but also that race always asserts itself.

LYNN: Yes.

Mr. KING: We did - I mean, I'm sure you, as we did, loved "The Wire" and wanted to use some of the actors from "The Wire," and there became an opportunity to do that. We did think there was this interesting dynamic between what was considered the older-style ministers, who made political accommodations with the machine, the Chicago machine, and then some of the newer ministers who were probably a little more straight-ahead Christian. And we actually have that dynamic coming back this year.

But we thought there was this interesting political struggle that exists between a father and son in that church, between someone who is much more willing to have the prayer breakfast, like with Bill Clinton, and then the son, who was much more like, no, you got to get right with God.

CONAN: Was part of it also that you don't want, in a - what is also a, you know, a lawyer show, the African-Americans just to show up as defendants?

LYNN: Absolutely. I have to commend you on that, as well.

Mr. KING: Oh, definitely.

LYNN: Michael Boatman and...

Mr. KING: Oh, my gosh, he's so good, isn't he?

LYNN: ...(unintelligible) excellent. Besides the gentleman from "The Wire," who plays the minister, I mean, you guys have made some great casting choices.

Mr. KING: Oh, that's nice to hear. I mean, we really are going in thinking, one of the interesting things about Chicago and the politics of Chicago is race, and it's best not to run away from it. But see that, you know, you don't do the clich´┐Ż that always the African-American person is the one with dignity. There is also this chance that they're the ones who's the most political infighters of anyone.

CONAN: They have agendas, too, on this program.

Mr. KING: Yeah.

CONAN: Lynn, thank you very much for the phone call. Let's see if we can squeeze one more caller in. Let's go to Mary(ph), Mary with us from Vacaville in California.

MARY (Caller): Oh, yeah, hi. Well, how do I frame this? I just thought -I like the idea of writing. I love writing. And - but when you hear about the writer's life, it's something that usually sounds appealing, and for some reason television writing seems not so appealing. It's more of a yolk that you've got to carry around all the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARY: Sorry about that. And then I can just imagine that every part of your life has to go through that filter, and how can you ever just have your own thoughts that doesn't have to - how do you do that?

CONAN: Michelle?

Ms. KING: I don't remember that we do have our own thoughts. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KING: ...I think we're reveling in that. I think it's a job like any other, and I - personally, I feel incredibly fortunate to have it. I mean, it's tremendous to be able to get - to tell stories and have an outlet for them.

Mr. KING: I mean, we have an 11-year-old daughter who fills our thoughts outside of work. So that will do.

MARY: Okay. That will do. That helps, yeah.

CONAN: Mary, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MARY: You're welcome. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Season two of "The Good Wife" premieres tonight on CBS. Robert and Michelle King, the show's producers and co-creators, and we should remind them, people listen to the radio in the afternoon as well on TV. They joined us from the studios of NPR West in Culver City. Thank you so much. Good luck with the program.

Mr. KING: Thank you.

Ms. KING: Thank you.

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