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TV Tonight: The Good Wife

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The first scene of The Good Wife (debuts tonight, CBS, 10 p.m. E.T.) is something you’ve seen before: Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) stands stock-still next to her husband Peter (Chris Noth) as he’s resigning the office of state’s attorney in a sex and influence-peddling scandal.

The next scene includes something you haven’t seen, but probably wish you had: in a corridor away from the cameras, Peter asks Alicia, “Are you all right?” Whereupon she hauls off and slaps him across the face.

That you-go-girl wish-fulfillment alone would probably make The Good Wife a must-see in many viewers’ eyes. But The Good Wife manages to build on its from-the-headlines premise—and its rather ordinary legal-procedural format—to become something different and compelling.

The series takes shape as Alicia, six months later, goes back to work to support herself and her two kids, with Peter in jail awaiting trial. She takes a job with a prestigious law firm, with the help of an old law-school pal (Josh Charles), but soon finds herself overwhelmed, after years out of the workforce. Her job turns out to be a bake-off—she’s competing for one associate’s slot with a younger male colleague—and she finds herself held in contempt (the non-legal kind) by some of her peers and adversaries, either for her husband’s offenses or her own rustiness at the job.

Given that I’ve used the term “wish-fulfillment” above, I’m probably not blowing any spoilers by revealing that Alicia gets it together, finds allies and her inner moxie, and finds the guts and wiles to push back, both in the courtroom and against her slimebag husband.

And just to build sympathy for her (especially, it seems, among female viewers), the pilot pits her against a slew of bugbears of working women: the mother-in-law who makes excuses for her husband; the older female “mentor” (Christine Baranski) who lives to undermine up-and-coming women who threaten her; a piggish, porn-watching man who pushes off his work on a harder-working older female coworker; and the continual experience of being underestimated because you spent years on the Mommy Track.

But beyond this surface set-up—designed, presumably, to hook viewers in the pilot—The Good Wife proves to be subtle and, especially for a network court drama, three-dimensional. On her first case, Alicia draws a hardassed judge (the great David Paymer) with a grudge against her husband, who turns out a tough but fair foil to her. Her relationship with Peter becomes complicated—setting up a storyline for future episodes—when, despite his continued boorishness, he offers her help from behind bars.

And Alicia—who could easily have been made either a paragon or a figure of melodrama—is refreshingly human. She manages her first case not because she’s a prodigy, or because her trials have given her unique insight, but because she works hard and gets a little lucky. Margulies, who was last in the forgettable lawyer drama Canterbury’s Law, gives Alicia a spark, and even a sense of humor about her plight. She tells Peter, in a prison visit, that their teen son has actually become more popular at school because of the scandal: “FunnyOrDie has a skit about you. It’s cool, I guess.”

The Good Wife could go in a couple directions from here. It could be mainly a case-of-the-week series, or it could become a more character-driven story about Alicia trying to establish herself separate from Peter while still being entangled in his life. In any case, I don’t know if I’ll follow it regularly, law procedurals not being my thing.

But if I was this surprisingly captivated by The Good Wife, I’m guessing it’ll find plenty of fans, both among legal-drama buffs and anyone who wants to see a story of a wronged wife standing apart from, rather than by, her heel of a man.

(Elsewhere tonight: the debuts of ABC’s forgettable unidentified-victims’ crime drama The Forgotten and CBS’ formulaic buddy-cop sequel NCIS: Los Angeles, which I can’t imagine TV really needed, but if you’re a fan of NCIS, there’s no point in my trying to talk you out of it.)