Too good to stop

SINGAPORE - Anyone who has seen a press conference where a politician's wife stands quietly by him as he apologises for a sex scandal will have wondered: What is she really thinking and why is she putting up with this?

It is real-life dramas such as these that inspired the hit television series The Good Wife, which debuted in 2009 after former New York governor Eliot Spitzer's prostitution scandal and the high-profile philandering of politicians such as former United States president Bill Clinton.

And they continue to be an unending source of creative fodder, especially given the exploits of disgraced American politicians Anthony Weiner and Spitzer in recent years.

The show's star, Julianna Margulies, describes these tabloid-worthy tales as "the gift that keeps on giving".

"It's just too good. We could go forever. It just brings new energy back into the whole reason we started this show."

Speaking to reporters in Los Angeles last year, the 47-year-old two-time Emmy winner says her favourite moments in the legal and political drama - which continues to deliver stellar ratings as its fifth season airs in the US - are drawn directly from those humiliating press conferences.

She imagines that it must be an "out-of-body experience" for the women as they face the press next to highpowered philanderers.

They "all look like they're just shells standing up there, looking down at themselves and thinking, 'Why am I on this stage? What am I doing?'"

Studying these women helped inform her character Alicia Florrick, a politician's wife forced to rebuild her legal career after her husband (played by Sex And The City actor Chris Noth) is jailed after a sex and corruption scandal.

The well-observed performances earned Margulies, already an Emmy winner in 1995 with medical drama E.R., a Golden Globe in 2009 and a second Emmy in 2011.

They also make her one of the highestpaid actresses on television, earning US$4 million (S$5.07 million) last year, according to Forbes magazine.

One of her favourite scenes was in the pilot episode, "where Alicia goes to pick off the lint from her husband's clothing in the midst of this press conference where he admits to sleeping with hookers.

"That's the only sure thing she has, because she's definitely not there mentally." The fourth season of the series is now being repeated on Diva Universal (StarHub TV Channel 522), with the fifth season set to debut in April.

The cast and crew were filming the latter seasons when New York congressman Weiner was all over the news for accidentally mass-tweeting a suggestive photograph of himself, which then led to revelations that he had sent explicit texts and photos to various women over the years.

His wife, Ms Huma Abedin, a longtime aide to former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, stood staunchly by his side through his denials and subsequent confession and resignation, and again when fresh allegations about sexting emerged last year.

The glare of the spotlight is often "so cruel and harsh" during these scandals, says Margulies.

"I think it is worse on the spouse nowadays. One of the horrible lines I kept seeing about Huma was at first, shame on him, but the second time, shame on her."

The actress says playing Alicia has given her "a lot more empathy and compassion" for women such as Abedin because "everyone is so quick to judge and nobody knows what that household is like".

"And they have a baby,'' says Margulies, who has a five-year-old son with her lawyer husband Keith Lieberthal, 39.

"If it's anything this character has taught me, and it is so corny, but judge not lest you be judged. Nobody knows unless he is in your shoes. And my fear of social media and social networking is that everyone has a voice and those voices aren't always so good."

Margulies has come to her own conclusions about women's motivation for being attracted to these powerful men and what makes such relationships tick.

"It's an aphrodisiac. If you read those texts, these women got so excited when Weiner was talking about women's health care! It mean, it's just so bizarre, but this happened in real life."

Robert King, who co-created the series with his wife Michelle, agrees.

He says: "There seems to be a difficulty that men - and I guess it's right to say men - have with the power that comes with politics."

He reveals that Season 5 will further explore this theme along with other topical subjects, including last year's disclosures about the US National Security Agency's mass surveillance of ordinary citizens.

And the Kings, who write and produce the show, have not pulled their punches when it comes to scripting the intricacies of real political controversies and new technology into the story.

"What I love is that we do a show that makes people think,'' says Margulies. "I really think it is an intellectual gem. It never talks down to people. You really have to stay up on it.

"I consider myself fairly smart, but this Episode 2 of Season 5, I had to read it twice because it is complex and that's always really exciting to play."

Even though The Good Wife has won plaudits for its writing and performances - the show has been nominated for more than 30 Emmys and Golden Globes, with the supporting cast and guest actors such as Archie Panjabi, Carrie Preston and Martha Plimpton winning major awards - some reviewers tend to qualify their praise for it by saying it is excellent "for a network (in other words, a non-cable) show".

It does not help that the show is part procedural, a format where a crime or legal conundrum is presented and neatly resolved within each episode, as with series such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and NCIS.

Procedurals are extremely popular, but while their formulaic nature makes for easy viewing, it means they rarely get much critical respect, especially when compared to top shows on cable networks such as HBO.

The Good Wife is one of the exceptions, but in its Sunday night timeslot in the US, it has had to compete with some of the strongest offerings on TV, including the juggernaut that is HBO's muchbuzzed- about Game Of Thrones, which boasts of a much bigger budget.

Rather than moan about this, King says the writers are trying to adapt to changing viewing patterns that are being increasingly shaped by cable TV.

"I actually think what cable has done to audiences is make them adjust to the 13- or 10-episode cycle," he says, contrasting this with The Good Wife's 22 episodes a season.

"So what we do is devise two years with those rhythms that the audience expects from cable shows… A lot of it is trying to keep the audience guessing where we are going. Because that's the way, I think, you get audiences talking."

He says that The Good Wife also has an advantage over cable shows because of its shorter lead time of about 21/2 months to prepare for each episode, "which gets you a little more contemporary on what's going on now. Whatever issues are going to come out of the Edward Snowden and National Security Agency revelations, we can then play them out."

Margulies also believes the show can hold its own against the famously Machiavellian Game Of Thrones in terms of the machinations at Alicia's law firm in the fifth season.

"If we were Game Of Thrones, we could just slice a few heads off. You'd see blood at the law firm and then she would walk away from all these dead bodies,'' she quips.

"But instead, we're just going to do really smart banter. And some emotional scenes. It'll be great."

Season 4 of The Good Wife is being repeated on Diva Universal (StarHub TV Channel 522). Season 5 premieres in April.

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