Had the sexual assault charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, never surfaced, “The Good Wife” would have invented them.
It is easy to imagine that the writers are already mining a story from his ugly circumstances for a forthcoming script. (And then moving on to an episode about Arnold Schwarzenegger.) The details would change — the nationality of the accused might shift from French to Italian; the IMF might become the Fund for Global Monetary Alliance; the New York hotel suite where the police said the attack took place might become a hospital room in Chicago.
“Recovering from a heart attack during a meeting of the G-8,” the synopsis on CBS.com would read, “Giovanni Caro-Motti retains Lockhart Gardner to fight charges that he molested a nurse.”
Political sex scandal is the show’s inspiration and metier, its background and foreground. Upfront is the marriage of Peter and Alicia Florrick in the long aftermath of revelations that as state’s attorney Peter had forged too good a friendship with a prostitute named to confuse no one about her profession: Amber Madison. In the second season, which ended Tuesday night, we also learned that during those days Peter (Chris Noth) slept with a young investigator in his office who went on to work at Lockhart Gardner and befriend his wife.
The sort of law firm that wouldn’t want to bother if you simply needed to merge your midcap grain distribution company with an outfit in Minnesota, Lockhart Gardner is immersed in a world at the nexus of power, sex and big money. Its cases are never dull and rarely, if ever, lost. In a plot line this season echoing a situation faced by Al Gore not long ago, the firm chose to represent a hotel masseuse who hoped to sue a liberal demigod and Nobel Peace Prize winner who she claimed had groped her.
“What he does in Africa on account of women,” the prospective plaintiff tells her lawyers, confoundedly, “and then he does this.”
On the television screens that provide their own kind of surround sound on the series, there are frequent glimmers of situations similar to Peter and Alicia’s: a news flash, for instance, of a congressman’s wife receiving $1.3 million for a memoir about her husband’s infidelities, or the bogus musings of a morning news analyst examining the body language of forsaken political wives. Among the show’s running themes are the notions that public and private selves are virtually never integrated and that marriage is an institution really just for daredevils.
The only stable and surviving one depicted is corporate: the partnership between the chic Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), with her political convictions, and the more opportunity-minded Will Gardner (Josh Charles). Theirs is a dance of admiration, one between soul mates with a dazzling shared sense of ambition. When the two are threatened by an interloper (a briefly tenured third partner), they avowedly recommit.
It is Diane and Will who are living the comedy of remarriage, to borrow the phrase of the philosopher Stanley Cavell. Peter and Alicia are not; their efforts at rekindling have gone awry. In the show’s evolving ideology, endangered careers can find rebirth, but imperiled marriages have a more difficult time steadying themselves. This season tracked Peter’s efforts to regain his spot as state’s attorney, and lo and behold, he won.
Marketing a rehabilitated image, Peter defeated a female opponent with illegal-nanny issues, a turn reflecting the idea that men in the public sphere might weather the results of their domestic transgressions better than women. The show is acutely aware of the subtler mechanics of sexism.
Buddy Cianci, the fabled mayor of Providence, R.I., returned to office in the 1990s even after having pleaded no contest to assaulting a man he believed to be his wife’s lover. Every weeknight on CNN Americans can consume the opinions of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, even though he was exposed, three years ago, as a client of the escort service Emperor’s Club VIP. Arguably, the world has heard considerably less from the Clinton-era nannygate casualties Zoe Baird and Kimba M. Wood.
Among the many modern realities to which “The Good Wife” is astutely attuned is the sense that the expansion of social media has put the contemporary political campaign in an insidious mode of constant response. For much of the season Eli Gold, the Democratic operative brilliantly played by Alan Cumming, maniacally ran around, forced to offer counternarratives to whatever viral video or act of citizen journalism threatened to shift Peter’s fortunes in the polls.
The show’s fundamental tension comes from the sense that someone is always watching. No misbehavior or exercise in obfuscation ever goes unnoticed. In the final seconds of the season finale, an eerie shot of a long, empty hallway in a hotel, where Alicia (Julianna Margulies) has just embarked on her own affair, suggests the presence of a hidden eye and the presumption that the matter will not remain hushed.
It is worth noting that “The Good Wife” takes place in a modern Chicago, which is to say a new-guard Chicago, not the old-school, dirty street style of “The Chicago Code,” a series recently canceled by Fox. On “The Good Wife,” the city gleams with Eastern-educated power brokers who command their authority out of offices appointed with Oushak rugs and abstract art. The show is one of the very few on television (Fox’s “House” is the only other that comes to mind) committed to the portrayal of elite intelligence at work. Here characters are permitted to use words like sophistry, and the belief in the viewer’s own sophistication is so intact that cameos by people like the Democratic strategist Joe Trippi barely carry any exposition. For that alone, “The Good Wife” should serve as a calling to network executives everywhere.