The Good Wife, a new weekly drama on CBS, reacts to the one question everybody asks whenever there's a press conference for a politician disgraced by a sex scandal, and his wife stands supportively next to him: what's she doing there? Why isn't she following Carrie Underwood's advice and taking a Louisville Slugger to his most prized possessions, and refusing to appear in public with him?
Of course, in a culture that sees marriage as transient, maybe we should applaud every wronged wife who chooses forgiveness over spite. And who are we to give marital advice to someone we don't know? But too often it looks like the wife is just subjecting herself all over again to being used as a prop in her husband's show, allowing him to try to pass off a scandal as just a little "error in judgment." At worst, she's enabling his denial or helping to minimize his deeds, allowing him to put the hat of 'good family man' right back on, in order to rescue his career and his ambition—and maybe her own too. How many non-politicians could win such a quick and unqualified show of support from someone they so cruelly shamed? And so it was almost refreshing to have Mark Sanford's wife absent for his rambling, stream-of-consciousness confession conference this summer.
The Good Wife looks at things from the perspective of, well, the good wife, the woman who stands by her man throughout excruciating humiliation. Julianna Margulies plays the wife of the Illinois state's attorney who resigns after a sex scandal. (Hard as it is to imagine a scandal in Illinois state politics, just try and go along with it.) Margulies is brilliant as a steely but sentimental former lawyer who goes back to work when her husband goes to prison. The opening scene of the pilot is that familiar press conference, with the husband reciting half-hearted and defensive apologies with his dazed wife standing alongside him. Backstage after the press conference, Margulies' character gets in a satisfying slap on the face of the philanderer. But then what?
For Margulies' character, Alicia Florrick, the answer is taking up cases at a top Chicago law firm. In the first episode, she sticks up for a client falsely accused of killing her husband; in the second she supports, then doubts, then vindicates a stripper who was raped by a high-profile socialite. The courtroom scenes are pretty standard stuff for TV law dramas, but the backstory makes them stand out. Florrick's victories are so satisfying and redemptive to her that she starts to dread the prospect of her husband being released early from prison.
The show is a good reminder of the pain that remains in a family long after the voracious media has moved on to the next news cycle. But it never does fully answer the question about that opening press conference: what was she doing there? In a monologue toward the end of the first episode, Florrick says that she always wondered about the loyal wives of adulterous public figures, but when it happened to her, she was in too much shock to do anything but follow her husband to the podium. And she says that as angry as she is, she wants to give the marriage a chance.
That's reasonable and even admirable, especially in a culture that overreacts to sex scandals and underreacts to insufficiently salacious scandals. But I still wonder about those confessional press conferences and the wives who attend them: what should "the good wife" do?