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'Good Wife' has a way of hooking viewers

"The Good Wife," CBS's Tuesday night legal drama that is now midway through an addictive and excellent second season, is one of those rare shows that become quietly totemic for loyal viewers, something we carry around but don't talk about.

It subsists quite well on a tiny fraction of the hip hype and thinky deconstructionist recaps that many premium cable dramas generate as a matter of course. Hardly anybody tweets new thoughts about "The Good Wife," which draws about 12 million viewers a week. It's just the good show.

So let's talk about it. Should Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) unshackle herself from the post-scandal, brave-faced obligations of her dutiful, Silda Spitzer-like political wifehood to find true love with Will Gardner (Josh Charles) at the law firm where she is an overworked junior associate?

In a way, her love life is the least of our worries, on a show that has somehow managed to update and make mainstream the lost art of the long story arc. It asks you to remember what happened a few episodes -- or 30 episodes -- ago. It's a network show for the last few of us who can do that.

"The Good Wife" was born from an obvious pitch: The stoic spouse of one of those politicians who can't keep his pants zipped -- what goes through her mind during the media circus that ensues?

Instead of becoming a story about a bitter divorce and a tell-almost-all book contract, "The Good Wife," created by husband-wife team Robert and Michelle King, took seriously the theme of reinvention and self-reliance, as told through the eyes of a woman who was able to look away from her own press (imagine!). Right away, Alicia's choices left behind the parallels to headlines and entered the realm of satisfying fiction. Her husband (Chris Noth), the state's attorney in Chicago, went to prison; to support her two teenagers, Alicia fell back on her law degree.

Unlike thousands of recent and still unemployed law school grads in the real world, Alicia was immediately hired, thanks to connections -- namely Will Gardner, with whom Alicia went to law school.

The job she got was equally make-believe, sending her promptly into television's warp-speed concept of what a lawyer does and how the court system works. In Alicia's world, cases come to trial and receive a verdict before hour's end. Rather than invite scoff and scorn, I'd wager that "The Good Wife" is raptly watched by members of the bar.

"The Good Wife" owes most of its ratings to decades of court procedural dramas and fictional lawyers who predate Alicia, as far back as Perry Mason.

"The Good Wife" reminds me at times of the long-forgotten "L.A. Law," taking its sense of saga as importantly as it takes its cockamamie courtroom antics and characters.

I can barely recall any of the cases in "L.A. Law," but I'll never forget Rosalind Shays plunging down the elevator shaft outside the McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney & Kuzak lobby.

"The Good Wife" returns us to that same desperate sense of life at the teetering law firm, leavened with the occasional oddball. Rather than fall back on high jinks, the show feeds on deadly serious conflict and deceit -- now between Will and Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), as they alternately aid and thwart a possible takeover by a new partner (Michael Ealy).

Television shows are busier than ever, and "The Good Wife" is sometimes much too busy in its attempt to remain essentially CBS-like and adhere to courtroom melodrama and murdered pretty people. Its plots are a swirl of BlackBerry alerts and YouTube shockers; it's all surreptitious meetings with court clerks and the sound of tires peeling out in parking garages. The usual clatter.

That is why, at least once an episode, Alicia simply stares off into space for a moment.

This happens to be Margulies' lasting contribution to her craft. It might be her only real move. Those crystalline eyes gaze out on all that corrupt Chicago gray.

Of all the people on television who are good at staring off into space, including the entire cast of "Mad Men," Alicia's stares are the most forlorn?

Yes, but also the most determined. Within these brief stares, "The Good Wife" gets down to the true work of illuminating life's biggies -- sex, gender, politics, justice, crime, teenagers getting in trouble with texts and videos -- without ever seeming as if it's trying to be about the biggies. It allows Alicia one or two scenes of moral doubt per episode and no more -- the beauty is in all the ambiguity around her.

Even Alicia succumbs to the gray zone. Early this season, in what was perhaps one of the few moments that "The Good Wife" has registered amid pop culture's noise, Alicia surprised us all and had sex against the bathroom sink with her husband. They made love while the telltale trumpeted theme to NPR's "All Things Considered" droned on a radio in the background.

It was as if "The Good Wife" had finally winked at the core demographic lurking within its 12 million loyalists: vaguely unhappy people who listen to NPR. "The Good Wife" is the compelling but only just slightly literary mystery novel stored in the Kindle sitting in someone's NPR pledge-drive tote bag.

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