Spousal approval with The Good Wife

Michelle and Robert King work side by side to pen network TV hit The Good Wife.
By Kinney Littlefield | Published: October 31, 2014


The Good Wife. Photo courtesy of CBS.

The Good Wife. Photo courtesy of CBS.

Master collaborators – that’s Robert and Michelle King, savvy TV scribes and spouses. Together the canny Kings spawned The Good Wife, the trenchant CBS legal series that’s arguably the smartest show on network TV today. Now in its sixth season, The Good Wife follows embattled attorney Alicia Florrick (Emmy Award-winner Julianna Margulies) as she searches for love, sex and career success, plus personal healing after the recent death of her soulmate and legal rival, Will Gardner (Josh Charles). Of course there’s also Alicia’s conflicted marriage to fictional Illinois governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), topped by a slew of further wry-sly family, co-worker and client traumas. Yet the bittersweet series doesn’t trade in melodrama. In the Kings’ hands, The Good Wife stays relentlessly rooted in the messy, shifting, ironic muddles of real life.

And the Kings don’t shy from controversy. Their sensitive depiction of complex court cases involving government secrecy, civil liberties and other hot-button issues has earned The Good Wife critical kudos and prestigious Peabody and Humanitas awards. Partners in art for more than a decade, and married for more than two, the Kings also colluded on a previous TV series, In Justice, in 2006. Before that, Robert wrote feature films, including Red Corner with Richard Gere, while Michelle worked in project development with Hollywood studios and production companies. Always candid, the creatively conjoined couple recently took time from The Good Wife to talk about writing in tandem, plotting episodic television, and penning emotional truth.

You two have been writing partners, and life partners, for quite a while now. What leads to a successful writing partnership?

Michelle King: Well, I don’t understand how anyone does this job without a partner, I mean, whether it’s a spouse or not.There is so very much to do that I can’t imagine how one person could do it. So it actually seems like a necessity, not something to be troubleshot. In terms of doing it with a loved one, I just find that easier because if you’re both doing something all the time, there’s a trust that OK, you’re both working to move it all forward, whether it be a need of the show or a need of life.

Robert King: For me, the most important thing is that we have an agreement about who the characters are, because the permutations we take the characters through are so elaborate and so lifelike. We rarely have any creative disagreements about plot turns. If there’s a disagreement about whether Alicia would do something or “Diane [Diane Lockhart, the powerhouse attorney played by Christine Baranski] would never do that” – that I think is the basis for creative disagreements. So the most important thing is that Michelle and I agree on who these characters are, on what their voices sound like. Because on our show we have a writers’ room, but the closest collaborator you have is the one working on the scripts with you.

Do you try to separate work life and home life?

Michelle: We do not make an effort to separate work and home. It’s all a big sloppy mess of conversation.

What is your writing process when you two work together?

Michelle: Robert really gallops ahead, and typically I will then come in after that.

Robert: And [come in] for the rewrite. I think though the bigger question is – usually where we start an episode in our mind is with something that interests us in the news, whether it’s either outrageous or comic or interesting. For example, the reaction to the Boston Marathon [bombing] last year that was fascinating. How quickly the tech universe could turn into sort of a lynch mob – sort of a high-tech Ox-Bow Incident. So we’re always digging up things like that.

And then what?

Robert: What we have to look at is our map for what happens during the year. For example, last season, we knew by episode five that we wanted to break up into two law firms. We wanted episode 10 to matter because it was our 100th episode, so we knew that it had to be the biggest fight between Alicia and Will. And then in episode 15, we knew Will was going to die. So I think once you have those [events], it’s easier to know what you’re doing in between, because you have to build toward that. So our process is to build that kind of massive road map for the year. And then the continuing plot would be obvious once you look at what you’re building toward.

What happens if you two disagree about a character? How do you work that out?

Robert King

Robert King

Robert: I’m not sure if it’s a disagreement. Can we put it in a way where it’s an extension of what the other person is thinking?

I remember in the first season, there was an episode called “Heart” where it was the first time Will and Alicia kissed. They were in high emotion because of a legal case and they kissed late at night and immediately Alicia backed away, going: “Oh, my God, this is insane.” And that was an idea I had. And then Michelle – and I wouldn’t put this as a disagreement – kind of pushed it in another direction and said, “You know what she should do then, what Alicia should do, is go home and fuck her husband.”

Which was a brilliant idea because the problem we had was that because Peter had slept with a prostitute, and then got out of jail and was staying at Alicia’s home, there was a real Cold War between them. It was hard to warm these two people up because of all this baggage. So the very thought that she was turned on by Will, and that then she did the only thing she could – given what a good girl she is, she’d go home and sleep with her husband. Michelle got that idea – I wouldn’t say it was a disagreement as much as a push me-pull you on the character.

Michelle, can you think of any other disagreements?

Michelle: No, but I also wouldn’t confess to any fights we have at home, either.

Robert: That’s probably a very sane way to go.

Aha. So do you find that having both a male and female point of view enriches the characters you create in a way that you couldn’t with a single-gender point of view?

Michelle: I feel like the easy answer is yes. First of all, given that we’ve never tried it a different way, it’s sort of hard to know. But even now, just looking at all the writers in the writers’ room, I don’t necessarily feel like the women writers do a poorer job on the [male characters], or the men do a poorer job on the women. I do feel like once the template is set, once people understand who these characters are, that it goes beyond their own gender. I was speaking metaphorically. There’s no actual template or bible for the show.

Robert: I think even more important than gender is probably religion and politics. Michelle is Jewish and I’m Catholic, and I think that energy comes through in some of the religious elements in the show and the culturally Jewish elements in the show. And then the other is politics. We’re always turned off by how knee-jerk liberal TV tends to be. Yes, maybe that’s most close to our politics, but it just makes TV boring.

How do you balance Alicia’s moments of happiness versus her unhappiness, her struggles against personal and professional obstacles?

Robert: I think Alicia was very happy last season starting her own firm – even though she’d been happy in a kind of very cunning way in her battles with Will at Lockhart-Gardner – because suddenly she was a peer with Will. There was always the sense that she was patronized and a little bit under Will’s thumb. She started her own firm and started to battle Will on his own terms, and get a lot of credit for it. And yet then life comes along and pulls them away and that put her in unhappiness. She gets happy but also, like life, happiness sometimes hits a brick wall.

You know you never get over grief, I think. But what you do is, you deaden that pain with distractions. And I think you’ll find there were some pretty funny episodes after Will’s death just because we didn’t want to live in grief.

As a writer, how can you tell if you’ve created too many obstacles for a character, or not enough?

Michelle: There’s a lot of discussion in the writers’ room about Alicia’s emotional state at any given time. From that point, we just try to mimic the reality of how her day might feel rather than impose a specific rhythm.

How many other writers do you have on staff now, and how do you decide what you two will write versus what others will write?

Michelle: There are seven writers in addition to us. Last year, we wrote seven of the 22 episodes. We typically do the first and last episodes [of the season], as well as any others that Robert directs. Plus there are certain episodes that are either so significant in terms of plot or unique in their structure that it makes sense for us to take them.

How far in advance did you know that Josh Charles would be leaving the series, and did you consider turning his character’s death into a season-ending cliffhanger? Why include it earlier in the season?

Michelle King

Michelle King

Michelle: We knew over a year in advance that Josh was not going to be renewing his contract. And we very, very briefly considered having it be a cliffhanger or an end to the season. First of all, it would be a bigger surprise if it happened in the middle of year, and second of all, it would allow us to see how Alicia’s character was impacted. And given that at the end of the day the show is about Alicia, that was very interesting. Plus we wanted to see how it would impact Diane and Kalinda [Lockhart-Gardner’s ace investigator, played by Archie  Panjabi] and all the other people in that universe. And if you ended the season that way, you would be denied that opportunity.

Robert: And if I can mention two other things. I think one of the real reasons that we were able to keep [Will’s death] a secret is that it didn’t come up at the end of the year. You know, it’s episode 15 with seven episodes still to come [in that season]. It’s not when people are looking for the big move. Usually they’re looking for the big move right around when people’s contracts are running out, which is near the end of the year.

The other thing is, we’ve had one end-of-the-season cliffhanger that was probably the most ordinary and also the most disappointing to us. And that was after the first season where Alicia’s phone is ringing because Will is probably calling back, and we went out on that. And the problem with that is that it’s very specific, and I find it teases the audience in almost an unattractive way. It’s very Perils of Pauline. So we’ve learned from that, and every season since we have not really done that kind of cliffhanger.

In last season’s finale, Alicia is stunned when Eli Gold [Alan Cumming], her husband’s chief of staff, suddenly asks her if she would run for state’s attorney. How did you come up with the very last word in that episode, – “What?” – which is all Alicia could say. It was so simple, and so perfect.

Robert: We’ve always been attracted to comic ends to the season – they’re almost like comic little periods to a long paragraph. [In that finale] it felt like Alicia is just as stunned by the offer of running for state’s attorney as the audience is, because the audience thinks of The Good Wife as a law show. So to have this kind of comic“what the hell?” –that’s basically what we thought. It’s similar to the season four ender when we were supposed to think that Alicia will go to her door and Will Gardner will be there, because she’s cheating on her husband. Instead we see that it’s not Will, we see that it’s Cary Agos [Matt Czuchry], and that she’s thinking of cheating on her law firm, not her husband, and leaving her law firm. So we like that kind of paradigm. I think we’re going to try to keep doing that. It adds a little comedy, a little surprise. And it hopefully opens a universe to the viewer some sense of what the next year is going to entail.

So what makes a really good cliffhanger?

Robert: The cliffhanger that is better is the one that opens your mind to the possibilities of character. That is to say: Here’s a question. What is the answer? As we saw with the end-of-the-fourth-season’s episode, the cliffhanger was about, what would it be like if now Alicia crossed the Rubicon, to say she’s leaving the law firm that started her career again? And at the end of season five, we wanted to open your mind to: What is Alicia’s life going to be like if she runs for office? How’s that going to change her life? So those are cliffhangers that don’t tease the audience but impel the audience into a new way of thinking, and hopefully enjoying the show.

Is your vision of your characters consciously anti-idealized, anti-romantic? There’s a scene, right after Will’s death, in which one of Diane’s young staffers cries uncontrollably. We expect Diane to comfort her, but instead Diane fires her on the spot.

Michelle: I don’t think we make so much a conscious choice to go against the grain, [but] rather make a conscious choice to try to do what feels most true to the character. And it felt like Diane was suffering true pain, and she had exactly no patience for someone that was ladling on the pain.

Robert: Everybody’s had the experience of going to a funeral where you have an incredible deep emotion, and there are people there who seem to be showy, shoveling in their mourning, and then their crying.  And there’s something in you that just goes. It almost kills off your true emotion. The thing we’re trying to do differently is to not have the expected habit about how people mourn. One of my favorite points in that same episode is when David Lee [Zach Grenier], the cynical family law lawyer, leaves the room and we think he’s going off to do something dastardly like take over Will’s position in the firm. But he really just goes into the office and gets all the assistants out, yelling at them to get out, and then he breaks down in the only way David Lee could, which is: He shatters slowly. What I like about that episode is that it was intended to show what mourning is, in a non-routine TV way. How grief is really experienced in life.

And thank you for saying “anti-romantic.” I do think that’s good. In fact [the show] is really meant to be a glass shard and not some comforting, warm fuzzy thing, although in fact it has a lot of comedy in it. But there are also a lot of very strong and harsh emotions.

A character-packed courtroom allows the Kings to play with smart dialogue. Photo courtesy of CBS.

A character-packed courtroom allows the Kings to play with smart dialogue. Photo courtesy of CBS.

The Good Wife has a large cast of regular and recurring characters. How do you juggle all the characters? How do you know when you’ve created too many characters?

Michelle: You know you have too many characters when you can’t afford to hire the actors.

Robert: Yeah, and I would say the fourth season probably had too many characters, especially the first half of the year. Season five was in many ways a reaction to season four, that we’d been drifting away from our main characters. I think where we feel the show has landed is that there are three or four beloved characters that you tend to give an episode to: Colin Sweeney [the supremely weird client played by Dylan Baker] and
Elsbeth Tascioni [Carrie Preston as a lovably quirky lawyer]. And then there are characters we really like having as lawyers and judges in the show, to give comic diversity to the show.

One of the problems we’ve run into is that we’re really susceptible to the schedules of actors. We work around their schedules so, for example, Judge Abernathy who’s played by Denis O’Hare, we always try to get him back but he’s a very busy cookie. He’s off on a lot of other series and a lot of other things. So sometimes we have to create a new character because we can’t get the actor we want for the character that was supposed to be in the episode. A good example of that:  There was an episode called “Bad” in the first season. That was actually supposed to be Martha Plimpton playing her lawyer character Patti Nyholm. But Martha I think had gotten the show Raising Hope or something else, so we had to create a new character which turned out to be Mamie Gummer’s character, Nancy Crozier. A sweet-as-pie character but then you discover the fact that she’s really a sly and cunning lawyer. So sometimes you end up with too many characters and too many options because you’re really struggling to get the actor you want.

Do either of you have any personal writing habits, rituals or good luck charms?

Michelle: No specific good luck charms. But delighted to get some if you have any extra.

What’s the most important point you’ve learned about writing for TV since you started in the business?

Michelle: The thing that I’ve learned is that there’s no upside in holding back plot. So, in other words, if you’ve got a great idea, that great idea doesn’t wait until season two. It goes in the third act. You can keep inventing more plot, but you can’t invent more audience. You have to have the faith in yourself and the writers’ room that there will be another good idea within another hour in the writers’ room.

Robert: I completely, 100 percent, agree. And that’s a very good lesson for younger writers, too. I think sometimes you might think of TV as writing a long novel, but it’s kind of not. You have to do a very strong short story to start with.

So frontload interest, frontload drama, frontload as much as you can, because there are so many distractions to an audience right now, and they really will take to something if they see that it entices them.

But the thing I’ve learned is how much creativity and plot are attached to the limitations of budget and the limitations of schedule. We’re always trying to not cry when we lose an actor or not cry when we realize that the script we wrote can’t be produced in the eight or nine days that we have or under the budget restrictions we have. And often that pushes you to do something even more creative as a way to get around that. That is an interesting aspect of TV because it doesn’t have such limitless funds as many movies do. You really are doing short 1970s movies like Five Easy Pieces or, you know, you’re basically trying to bring human emotion down to the level where you can shoot it in eight days or nine days, and you can do it for $4.5 million.

And it’s fun. The life of a TV writer is more fun these days than movie writing. Movie writing, when I was doing it, the content would deaden your soul because you’d be rewritten or you’d be rewriting yourself so much. With TV, you know, you get to control the process more. So TV is, I think – it’s the new independent filmmaking.

Kinney Littlefield is a New York-based entertainment journalist who has covered TV for The Associated Press. She is a former staff TV critic for The Orange County Register in Southern California.

THE KINGS FILE

Robert and Michelle King are the co-creators, executive producers and writers of the acclaimed CBS legal series,The Good Wife (2009-present).

Selected Credits:
Co-creators/writers/executive producers, In Justice (TV series, 2006).
Robert King: writer, Vertical Limit (feature film, 2000); writer, Angels in the Infield (TV movie, 2000); writer, Red Corner (feature film, 1997); writer, Cutthroat Island (feature film, 1995); writer, Clean Slate (feature film, 1994); writer, Speechless, (feature film, 1994).

Selected Awards for The Good Wife:
Television Critics Association Award, Outstanding Achievement in Drama, 2014; one of the American Film Institute’s TV Programs of the Year, 2013; Peabody Award, 2011; Sidney Lumet Award for Integrity in Entertainment, 2011; Humanitas Prize, 60 Minute Category, 2010.

Selected Nominations for The Good Wife: Writers Guild of America Award, Drama Series, 2014; WGA Award, Episodic Drama, for the episode, “Hitting the Fan,” 2014; WGA Award, Drama Series, 2012; Primetime Emmy Award, Outstanding Drama Series, 2011; Primetime Emmy Award, Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, for the pilot episode, 2011; Primetime Emmy Award, Outstanding Drama Series, 2010; WGA Award, New Series, 2010.