During last week’s episode of The Good Wife, Kalinda’s dangerous estranged husband, with whom she only semi-reluctantly enjoys rough sex, brought her to an ice-cream parlor where he took his fingers on a trip down memory lane and up her skirt. When his moves were rebuffed, he plunged those same fingers in her ice cream, and Kalinda, unfazed, continued to lap up her frozen treat. And in last night’s episode, we saw FBI agent Lana postcoitally popping her head up from way down beneath Kalinda’s sheets. It’s racy stuff by most broadcast television standards, if not the show’s own, because The Good Wife has carved a niche for itself as network TV’s most sophisticated adult drama, unafraid and unapologetic about the sex lives of its characters. Immediately after the soft-serve incident aired, reporters pronounced the exchange “jaw-dropping,” “scandalous,” and our own Good Wife recapper called it the dirtiest thing she’d seen on network television. (Some critics were turned off by the incident, and Kalinda’s storyline more generally.) But for all the hyperbole, series bosses Robert and Michelle King merely chuckled when questioned about the polarizing reactions. For them, it was no big deal.
Before Janet Jackson’s 2004 wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl caused networks to back off provocative content, dramas like NYPD Blue and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (home to broadcast TV’s first lesbian sex scene) were regularly pushing the envelope in showcasing the sex lives of their characters. Now, the hottest stuff is almost exclusively in the domain of cable. At HBO or FX or AMC, the Kings would be allowed, and maybe even expected, to do more than just suggest where those fingers went: Mad Men’s Don Draper pulled this move on Bobbie Barrett way back in aught-eight. And because the way Draper uses sex is as integral to his character as it is to Kalinda’s, The Good Wife has found its own ways of staying creatively competitive with its less-constricted cable rivals. After all, the Emmy-winning drama sprung from the real-life sex scandals of such politicians as John Edwards, Mark Sanford, and Eliot Spitzer. “Cable has opened the door to a lot of ways of looking at realities that are not just sexual but are about a nuanced view of sex, of crime, of morality and ethics,” Robert says. “I think that’s the kind of thing we hope to compete with — whether sex falls into that bargain is its own question mark. I would say it does for us up to a point. We’re not trying to appall people every week sexually or anything like that. But I think there are ways of looking at people’s sexual experiences that are more frank.”
The Kings have had to explain their proclivity for the risqué before, of course, having made headlines for an oral-sex scene between Alicia and Peter in the beginning of season two. “Is it startling on a network? Yeah, maybe, but that isn’t really the point,” Michelle says. “The point is always to show what seems real in a relationship. If we do it askew, it’s because we aren’t on cable. ” Adds Robert: “We surprise people to have them think about things in a different way.” For the record, the soft-serve scene did give the show’s corporate overlords pause. There were “a couple of extra conversations” about it, CBS TV Studios senior vice-president of current programming Glenn Geller tells Vulture. But “it wasn’t something we were ultimately concerned about. We do have a standards and practices department that looks at everything, and the [Kings] know what we can and can’t show.”
They still manage to get away with a lot. Earlier this year, Kalinda attempted to convince an FBI agent to drop her investigation by resorting to what Robert then called “genital manipulation.” And long before that, Alicia allowed her husband, who had been caught “sucking on the toes of a hooker,” to perform oral sex on her while things between them remained unresolved. (The scene was handled with a tight shot of her facial expression and flailing hands.) The Kings say it was a revelatory moment for Alicia. “You could not imagine the situation where Alicia would give herself sexually to her husband except as a way where she was a passive recipient, and yet, it did move the ball forward so to speak in their relationship,” Robert says. Michelle adds, “We treat marriage with more respect than most other network shows.”
But for Kalinda, sex is rarely about love and almost never romantic. It’s a tool she’s used to help crack cases, manipulate the enemy, and most recently, let her ex know she won’t be taken advantage of again. “We’ve been playing Kalinda as someone who has changed her tastes over the past few years. [Her husband] doesn’t know who she is now,” Robert says. “She is able to sexually one-up him, and it’s a surprise to him.” But, he also concedes, “The dirty joke is never too far away from what we do.” (Says Geller about the ice-cream scene, “It makes you really rethink dairy, doesn’t it?”)
And instead of shying away from the naughty bits, CBS has put them front and center. Last season, the show’s marketing pushed images of Julianna Margulies in lingerie, and this year teased Kalinda’s taste for the unorthodox. The Kings say they’ve yet to be told no, but everything is parsed before filming. “The cunnilingus was meticulously bandied about,” Robert said, “but we were all on the same page.” (It became more problematic primarily because the scene was planned to be filmed as a oner, meaning it would be shot in one take and there would be no other available footage to use to cut in and around the, ahem, performance, to tone it down.) “We try to explain what we want to do beforehand,” Robert said of the more explicit moments. “Standards tend to change. We e-mail back and forth before an episode shoots about how to be careful with this or whether that can be done, but there’s no one rule, or no ten rules, that’s been handed down to us.”
Margulies earlier this year told More magazine that she believed the Kings were “instigating a sexual revolt” for network TV. On other network shows, Robert explains, “It’s two people … banging through a bedroom door and ripping each other’s clothes. It’s that TV trope, those TV clichés, we’re trying to avoid. We want to see what happens after, what happens in between. If that’s a sexual revolution, we’ll wear it.”