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Nussbaum: The Good Wife’s Bait and Switch

Julianna Margulies with guest star Michael J. Fox

I’ve been obsessing for years about network procedurals, from the classics to the throwbacks to the soap operas. For various economic reasons, they’re the Lego blocks that form the bulk of the TV schedule — and each fall, more pour off the assembly line, wrecking the season for those of us desperate for something more idiosyncratic to think about. (You try analyzing The Mentalist!)

Now, I’m not immune to a well-made laundry-folder (to quote some commenter's brilliant neologism). But what really fascinates me are television shows that use the format as source DNA for something stranger, newer — shows like The Wire (the best and most explosive of all anti-procedurals), as well as cable experiments like Dexter and Terriers. (Please, people! This week's Terriers made me cry. Catch it on Hulu.)

Which makes it all the stranger that one of the most successful experimental procedurals is a glossy hit show smack in the middle of CBS, The Good Wife. It’s a series that might not look like anything particularly radical if you’ve never watched it, and certainly has all the surface pleasures of any lazy laundry-folder, including that gorgeous cast (Julianna Margulies and Chris Noth) and the classic, comforting, often lurid case-of-the-week structural element.

But for a regular viewer, it’s clear those lawsuits are a bait and switch. The show’s creators use them as scaffolding for a much stranger series — a cynical, erotic meditation on politics and modern scandal. Better yet, The Good Wife is the first show I’ve seen that seems to actually be about politics on a psychological level, as opposed to the pleasurable utopia that was The West Wing.

The show began with a resonant jumping-off question, one on everyone’s minds at the time: What was Silda Spitzer (Elizabeth Edwards, Jenny Sanford, Dina McGreevey) thinking? But it's branched out since season one, exploring the mysteries of marriage in the public eye; the ambiguous qualities of ambition and repentance; the question of what it’s like to be a child in a famous family; boys' club gamesmanship and post-Obama racial politics; as well as the fun of dirty tricks both legal and legislative. At times, it's even woven in ripped-from-the-headlines elements of other sex scandals, some more successfully than others. (The Al Gore references were a low point.)

In Sorkin's intoxicating fantasia, everyone was a good guy, chatterboxing their way through high-minded debate. On The Good Wife, people keep their mouths shut. Even better, the characters you are rooting for have realistic cold streaks, from Alicia’s narrow-eyed law partner Will (Josh Charles) to the sexy-booted bisexual detective Kalinda (Archie Punjabi). And this includes Saint Alicia herself — who is revealed, in Julianna Margulies’s deceptively languid performance, to be far more calculating (“What’s the plan?”) than she appeared at first glance.

This season, Peter Florrick is out of jail. He’s trying to jump-start his political career. A bunch of fantastic minor characters are percolating, including Alicia’s mouthy gay brother Owen (Dallas Roberts), a sly younger female lawyer played by Mamie Gummer, and Lili Taylor, as Kalinda’s embittered ex. There’s been a welcome focus on Florrick’s political consultant, the magnificently twitchy Alan Cumming. In fact, there’s so much going on that the writers can afford to drop a plot beneath the waters for an episode or two: In the last episode, Alicia’s slow-burn adulterous love triangle was visible only in eye contact.

That episode was framed by a familiar procedural plot: a class-action Big Pharma suit that shifted from pathos to cynical laughs, then folded in a lurid sex twist and a last-act strategic double cross. Michael J. Fox was terrific as a lawyer manipulating his disability for sympathy, but this legal story, as twisty as it was, could have worked for Lie to Me or Law & Order: SVU. The real action was in the B-plot, in which Florrick’s campaign dug up dirt on their opponent, an upright African-American female candidate. Discovering she’d gotten breast implants, Alan Cumming’s Eli Gold crows, “This is better than Edwards’s Clinton's haircut!” He manipulates a spy to place the info with the campaign’s third candidate, who releases a mocking YouTube animation. In the final act, Gold's ploy turns into a bank shot: When the female candidate reveals that she has breast cancer, the smear rebounds on the third campaign and their campaign manager is forced to resign.

We as viewers get to enjoy, and not merely judge, Alan Cummings’s perverse backstage moral calculations. (Apparently, it’s okay to exploit the candidate's implants, but too distasteful — or maybe just too dangerous — to play up her interracial marriage.) Meanwhile, Florrick’s teenage daughter is going through her own private struggle: She’s disgusted by the campaign’s dirty tricks and drawn to the new candidate, but also loyal to her dad. With the exception of one crazily unrealistic incident with Alicia's voice mail (c'mon, she'd have a locked phone), the show is consistently smart about technology, particularly the way Twitter, quick-post gossip, and the surveillance of drifting cell phones have made Alicia’s family as twitchy as reality-television stars.

There's a balancing act to a show like this, which could easily slide into soap opera. So far, the creators have played their cards perfectly. And though I'm watching too closely to fold my laundry, it's the most pleasurable thing I watch all week. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that neither of Alicia's sweet teenage kids reveals a Megan McCain–esque Tumblr.

Photo: David M. Russell/CBS