Meet The Power Couple Behind 'The Good Wife' Robert and Michelle King, the real-life husband and wife team who created the CBS show, say that when it came to creating the series' main character, it was a question of art imitating life.
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Meet The Power Couple Behind 'The Good Wife'

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Meet The Power Couple Behind 'The Good Wife'

Meet The Power Couple Behind 'The Good Wife'

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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today, our guests are Robert and Michelle King, the husband-and-wife writing-and-producing team who created the CBS drama series "The Good Wife." The show, which stars Julianna Margulies as attorney Alicia Florrick, is now in its sixth season, and the season finale is televised Sunday night.

As a TV critic, I consider "The Good Wife" the best drama series on broadcast television right now and one of the very best TV series, period. Alicia is a deliciously complex character, a resourceful lawyer who put her career on hold after marrying Chicago politician Peter Florrick, played by Chris Noth, to raise their children. The series began when he was caught in a series of scandals, some political, some extramarital. And Alicia, after standing silently by his side at his press conference, re-entered the workplace to begin a new life. Since then, her journey has been unpredictable, often unstable and extremely entertaining to watch. She's joined, quit and started a new law firm and, this season, even ran for the office of state's attorney, where some of her husband's old habits became an issue once again. Here are Julianna Margulies as Alicia and Chris Noth as Peter, who has emerged stronger than ever from his scandalous past and is now the state governor. But Alicia has just been given photographic evidence that Peter may be sleeping with an old friend and junior staff member.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD WIFE")

JULIANNA MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) You need to stop sleeping with her.

CHRIS NOTH: (As Peter Florrick) I'm not.

MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) Peter, do me the honor of being honest for once.

NOTH: (As Peter Florrick) I had dinner with her. If your photographer had stayed around another week, he would have seen me having dinner with other staff members. It's what I did.

MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) Were you sleeping with her in Highland Park?

NOTH: (As Peter Florrick) I'm not sleeping with her now.

MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) I was pregnant with Grace. Were you sleeping with her then?

NOTH: (As Peter Florrick) Alicia, listen to me. I will do nothing to embarrass you.

MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) These weren't taken by me. You think I give a crap - enough to follow you? They were taken by another campaign. They're going to use this against me and you, and I won't stand beside you. Not again, Peter. Not in a million years. So don't listen to me. Keep lying to me. I don't care. But do listen to your political instincts. You want to be re-elected? You want me to be elected? Then zip up your pants, shut your mouth and stop banging the help.

BIANCULLI: The first time she stood beside him, of course, was in the premiere episode of "The Good Wife" back in 2009. Alicia was a lot less assertive than. She just stands there onstage silently and stoically, watching her husband at the podium as he faces the press and resigns his office.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD WIFE")

NOTH: (As Peter Florrick) Good morning. An hour ago, I resigned as state's attorney of Cook County. I did this with a heavy heart and a deep commitment to fight these scurrilous charges. I want to be clear. I have never abused my office. I have never traded lighter sentences for financial or sexual favors. At the same time, I need to atone for my personal failings with my wife, Alicia, and our two children. The money used...

BIANCULLI: Michelle and Robert King, welcome to FRESH AIR. So what was the inspiration for that first scene? Was it the political scandals at the time?

ROBERT KING: Yes, very much. You know, everybody kind of compares it to the Eliot Spitzer-Silda Spitzer one, but in fact when we pitched this project, there were like five or six. I mean, it felt like every other week or every other month there was this poor woman standing by her disgraced husband, and it was just this kind of nightmarish scene where the woman did nothing wrong. The wife did nothing wrong, but was kind of dragged up there as a prop, really, and kind of with mud thrown at her by all the press talking about it afterwards. And you'd see all these shots afterwards that were just of the wife.

MICHELLE KING: And we happened to notice that a lot of these women just coincidentally were also attorneys.

R. KING: Like, powerful women that, on their own, would have had successful careers and, in many cases, put their careers on hold to help their husband, and it just felt like you could not find a more pitiful and sad and interesting situation. And obviously what went through our minds was probably what went through everyone's minds. What happened backstage after that press conference? I mean, did they just part? Did they walk away from each other? And of course, in our minds, she gave the biggest slap anyone has ever hurled at anyone else.

M. KING: And the question, of course, was also why does she stick around, because so many of these women, in fact, did continue on with their marriages.

BIANCULLI: You have this main character who is growing and changing and evolving, which is nice enough in itself. But she's doing it, you know, not always successfully. There are these stutter-starts and stops and mistakes. And in her private life and even in her life as a mother, her life as a single woman, her life as a lawyer, she makes good moves, she makes bad moves, and sometimes there are very significant consequences. Was this part of your plan all along with the character and with the show, or did you find it along the way?

R. KING: I would say that we found it when we started talking to Julianna Margulies. What's great about working with her is she's not wanting to play the character who always triumphs, who always solves the case, who always is the one who can buck people up with a good speech, like let's solve this. What we found was very effective were episodes where she was humbled, where she thought she knew what the score was.

M. KING: And the other thing that's a gift about working with Julianna Margulies is that even when she gets things wrong, she manages to play it in such a way that the character remains sympathetic. So that allows us to push more boundaries.

BIANCULLI: I actually have an example that I want to play that shows both of those points. This is - one of Alicia's many changes was having a secret affair with Will Gardner, her law firm boss and eventual co-partner. Even though they were lovers, she planned to leave their law firm with another of the firm's lawyers to start an independent practice. In the episode where Will found out, he entered her office to confront her and quickly got so angry, he knocked everything off her desk. Julianna Margulies plays Alicia and Josh Charles plays Will Gardner.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD WIFE")

JOSH CHARLES: (As Will Gardner) I took you in. No one wanted you. I hired you. I pushed for you.

MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) Will, this is a business decision.

CHARLES: (As Will Gardner) You were poison. This firm got you back on your feet.

MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) And I will always be thankful.

CHARLES: (As Will Gardner) And this is how you show it, by stealing our clients?

MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) We didn't steal anything. These were clients that...

CHARLES: (As Will Gardner) You have a fiduciary responsibility to this firm, and you are going behind our backs.

MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) I didn't go behind any backs. I...

CHARLES: (As Will Gardner) You negotiated Diane's exit package.

MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) You asked me to.

CHARLES: (As Will Gardner) And the whole time, you knew you were leaving.

MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) Nothing I was doing impacted that negotiation.

CHARLES: (As Will Gardner) Oh, God. God, you're awful, and you don't even know how awful you are.

MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) This is how you and Diane started this firm.

CHARLES: (As Will Gardner) Don't you dare compare - OK. OK. First of all, you're fired. Second, I'm taking this company cellphone until such time...

MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) Excuse me, that's my personal...

CHARLES: (As Will Gardner) And I'm taking it into possession until I can determine which clients you've attempted to steal.

MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) You can't do that.

CHARLES: (As Will Gardner) Get out of here, Alicia - right now. You're fired.

MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) No.

CHARLES: (As Will Gardner) You don't want to push this.

MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) I'm a partner. You want to remove me, you need the majority vote of the executive board, and then you need a vote of the full board.

BIANCULLI: That's Josh Charles and Julianna Margulies in a great scene from "The Good Wife," a series created by our guests - I'm going to ask you about it in a second - by our guests, Michelle and Robert King. What's the beauty and the strength for writing for both sides like that, where you sympathize or empathize with Alicia, but you also really get, you know, what he's saying?

R. KING: It's - creates complexity. You know, it's - so much of TV is, even though we're in the golden age, is kind of usually having someone to root for, where it's a very clear line to go from point A to point B. You're always aware where the writer wants you to stand, where he or she wants you to sympathize and go. And I think what kind of mixes it up is when you don't really know, and you get the sense the writer doesn't know what he or she wants the viewer to think or who they sympathize with. It feels a little more like life.

M. KING: I was going to say, I mean, so often it's either a hero or an antihero, and I think we're aiming just for a regular person, with all their complexity and messiness.

R. KING: And that's what was so fun there is because you - your heart thought you were supposed to go out to Julianna, but, in fact, what Josh Charles says is exactly right. I mean, he is - and so the episode there, it's this race between them. You don't really know who you're supposed to cheer for.

BIANCULLI: So presuming that you have legal consultants on your show, how much do they bring to the table?

R. KING: Oh, a ton.

M. KING: A ton.

R. KING: Yeah.

M. KING: There are seven writers in addition to us. Three of them are also attorneys, plus we have a legal consultant, Erv Miller, in Cook County.

R. KING: And they, you know - look any stupidities in the plot, anything where the lawyers - and the audience go, oh, that would never happen. That would never happen. You can blame us for that, I mean 'cause we're drama fiends. You know, it's like OK. That's a reality - good. What can we do to - what is the unusual thing that would happen based on that reality? So we're always looking for ticking-clock situations that, you know, Alicia has fought more cases than any lawyer in there. I mean, that's - the only thing you might argue with lawyers who kind of take task with the show, is there is - there has to be that dramatic element of things moving faster than they would in reality 'cause TV should be hyper-reality, just reality on speed (laughter).

BIANCULLI: Why the law?

R. KING: The law seemed to make language a battlefield, where it's how people argue and how people debate subjects that becomes the nature of the drama. That just seemed like a fascinating area, and then I think that creeps over into the creative side of it. I think we are interested in the debate. I'm from a very big family, and we would debate every subject nonstop. Michelle and I have a lot that we agree on and a lot we disagree on (laughter). So it's a good way to explore that.

BIANCULLI: Robert and Michelle King, creators and executive producers of the CBS series "The Good Wife." More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're talking with Robert and Michelle King, the husband and wife team behind the CBS drama series "The Good Wife," which presents its season finale this Sunday. One of the best things about this excellent show is its cast, both the series regulars and the recurring guest stars. And one of the best is Alan Cumming as Eli Gold, a shrewd political operative. He guided Peter Florrick from prison to the governor's office and this season, pushed Alicia into running for office herself. Here's Alan Cumming as Eli and Julianna Margulies as Alicia in a scene where they're walking almost as fast as he's talking.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD WIFE")

ALAN CUMMING: (As Eli Gold) Why would I leak a push poll like that. Have you read it?

MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) Who else, Eli? Who else would poll on my candidacy?

CUMMING: (As Eli Gold) Castro. Right now he's a shoo-in for reelection. He's worried about you.

MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) I don't believe you.

CUMMING: (As Eli Gold) Have you read the polling questions? They make you look bad. Do you think the wife of a sitting governor should take advantage of her position to run for office? This is Castro, not me. Don't you see? And I had nothing to do with Ernie Nolan offering you money. He did it on his own. Yes, I got Valerie Jarrett to call you, but that was it. This is just happening.

MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) Nothing just happens.

CUMMING: (As Eli Gold) Yes, it does. As cynical as I am, I know that sometimes the world just takes over. People write letters. Kids stand in front of tanks. College students vote. And even this crook Nolan - that's a good sign. I never trust when the good guys support you. It's when the bad guys come around you know it's real. People think you're important enough to bribe.

BIANCULLI: Let's talk about the actors on your show. I adore Alan Cumming as Eli Gold and Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart. But you go deep into the recurring guest stars and even the people that just come on as clients, and they're all so colorful and quirky. How do you do this logistically? You have so many good actors who are doing lots of other things. You know, Alan Cumming is, you know - you were doing this while he was doing "Cabaret." Do you figure out the schedules first and then write, or - how do you do it?

R. KING: (Laughter). This is...

(LAUGHTER)

R. KING: You asked us, when we're prepping for this, are we tired.

BIANCULLI: Yes.

R. KING: I would say the biggest element of being tired is the scheduling. And we have two amazing ADs.

M. KING: The assistant directors.

R. KING: Assistant directors who do - I can't imagine the work they do 'cause, you know, you would have - you have only one day to shoot out Chris Noth. And he has to shoot a scene with Alan Cumming, but Alan Cumming has to get out by 5 because he has to rinse the dye from his hair to go into "Cabaret" at night.

BIANCULLI: (Laughter).

R. KING: But you might have a guest star - David Hyde Pierce - who's going to start directing a play in January. And you know that these three have to arrive in a scene together. I'm just giving you an example.

BIANCULLI: Yes.

R. KING: And it's a - it is a poker game and a combination of that and chess I've never seen.

M. KING: And part of the problem is it's a self-inflicted wound. It's the way we're choosing to tell this story that is causing all the problems. If we just told a procedural law story where you met the perpetrator and the judge and the lawyer on the other side every week and they were different every week, we wouldn't run into any difficulties. But we are choosing to tell a continuing story with actors that we don't have any call upon except if they're available and they like being on the show. So that is creating all the problems.

R. KING: We would be remiss if we didn't mention Mark Saks, who is this hero of the show. He's been nominated, I think, every single year for an Emmy.

M. KING: He's the casting director.

R. KING: He's the casting director of our show, and he is someone who sits in on every play in New York and is constantly looking for those new nuggets of talent that he can bring our way. And he's been on from the very beginning. He did the pilot, and he's been doing every episode since.

BIANCULLI: One of the most attention-getting things of your series in the last couple of years was the surprise murder of Will Gardner, played by Josh Charles, in a scene that was so wonderfully put together. I'd love to ask you just about how you hid it from everybody.

M. KING: The hiding of it was great, good luck. I mean, we spoke to producers of "Game Of Thrones" and "Breaking Bad" and asked, OK, how do you hide your big surprises? And they had a few tips. But at the end of the day, there were hundreds of people that knew the secret, and they knew it for months. And they were just so good to the show that they - and good to the fans - that they kept it all to themselves.

R. KING: And I would add that we just kind of wanted to avoid what could have seemed like a calculated and ugly way to get Josh off the show and yet would seem like, dramatically, what we wanted to go for, which is when death surprises you during life - in the middle of life.

M. KING: And of course, our great collaborator in this was Josh. He was willing to keep quiet that he was going to be leaving.

R. KING: Which is usually how these things are revealed. Josh is, you know, cast in another show or a movie, and everybody who can read between the lines realizes, oh, he can't do that and do our TV show. So Josh was amazingly good and is still one of our friends, which is nice.

And how we did it, you know - Brooke Kennedy, who's one of our EPs, directed that episode, and it was a delicate little dance because it was written much - there was much more involved in the dramatizing of Josh Charles - of Will Gardner's death. And then in the editing room, we were very much whittling away - kind of pulling back on all these elements that would've hyped it too much or made it too melodramatic so that it would be more seen through Kalinda's point of view, and Diane's kind of hearing it. And it was more impressionistically the way if you were an observer to a friend's death - how that would happen.

BIANCULLI: Do you ever yearn for cable, or do you see advantages to being on commercial broadcast TV?

M. KING: I'll just speak for myself. The only thing that I envy cable is the fewer number of episodes. I don't personally wish we had more nudity or - you know, occasionally the language, but rarely. And it's not about content because CBS has been fantastic to us and allowed us to tackle any issue we want. It's purely they have more time to devote per episode on cable, and that's very appetizing.

R. KING: And more time to devote to their lives.

M. KING: Yeah. I mean, the other good thing about network TV is that there's more - it's more current because you are closer to airtime.

R. KING: And then have it show almost immediately. So it's a little more magazine-like in that way. That part is actually kind of fun. It would terrify us to build a whole year and then put it aside and have it - and direct it and then edit it all, and then you're just throwing out there something you've already done. We have some ability to change based on our feelings of watching it, on feelings of our family's response. Our family has very strong opinions (laughter) about things.

BIANCULLI: (Laughter).

R. KING: So you can kind of have it be a more living thing as you go.

M. KING: Yeah. The ability to course correct is very useful.

BIANCULLI: Finales have become so important to a TV series as a way to cement or improve or weaken a show's reputation. Do you have an exit strategy yet for Alicia and "The Good Wife?"

R. KING: Oh, yeah.

M. KING: Yes.

R. KING: We did after we did the first 13. We didn't know - you never know on network how long they're going to let you play, but we always knew what we were writing towards 'cause it's the only way you can not make it feel like this is a, like, a merry-go-round that we'll never get off. I mean, you want the audience to feel like it's building toward something. And so we are - we know what we're building to.

BIANCULLI: And you haven't had to change that direction in all these years? You're still building towards what you thought you were?

R. KING: Correct.

M. KING: That's correct.

BIANCULLI: Wow.

R. KING: Which is lovely. Even Josh Charles leaving was - we knew there was going to be a death. We didn't know whether it would be one of her children, which is an awful thought now, or Peter Florrick, but we knew there was going to be this death that made her re-evaluate her life. So it was lovely to have - (laughter) lovely - that's a terrible way to put it - to have Josh Charles want out.

M. KING: But we miss Josh.

R. KING: Yes.

M. KING: Don't get us wrong.

BIANCULLI: Well, I'm really glad that you have a plan to end the show. Just please don't plan to end it too soon. Michelle and Robert King, thanks for being on FRESH AIR.

M. KING: Thank you.

R. KING: Oh, thank you.

BIANCULLI: Robert and Michelle King, creators and executive producers of the CBS series "The Good Wife." The season finale is televised this Sunday. Coming up, a visit with Scott M. Gimple, an executive producer of the AMC series "The Walking Dead," and jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews the new album from Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

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