No Schmuck Bait: “The Good Wife” Creators On Adult Storytelling On Network TV

Show creators Robert and Michelle King on avoiding the network-TV curse of simplistic storytelling.

No Schmuck Bait: “The Good Wife” Creators On Adult Storytelling On Network TV
[Images courtesy of CBS]

The Good Wife has long been an anomaly on CBS. Part legal procedural, part serialized political, sexual and family drama, the series is an oasis of nuanced, cable-style storytelling in a sea of inane comedies and formulaic crime-solvers.


And this season–the show’s fifth–it got even better. As The Good Wife returns from an agonizingly long midseason hiatus, its creators and executive producers, Robert and Michelle King, tell Co.Create how they manage it.


Every season of The Good Wife turns on a shattering plot reveal. In season two, for instance, it was that Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) had slept with Alicia’s (Julianna Margulies) husband, Peter (Chris Noth). Robert King explains the thinking behind such revelations: “We have seven writers, who are amazing, and everybody comes in with the feeling of ‘How do we make this year different than the year before?’ It has this kind of TNT feeling about it.” (TNT as in dynamite, not as in the cable network.)

The explosion of this year, the series’ fifth season, has its origins in, of all things, budgetary constraints. It’s common for a TV production to resort to what they call a “bottle show” to save money. It’s an episode that utilizes only existing sets and requires no new ones and no location work, thereby saving money on construction and travel. In season four, the Kings explain, The Good Wife had been overspending and needed to keep costs down. The bottle show they came up with was “Red Team/Blue Team,” in which the law firm’s colleagues were pitted against each other in a mock trial. The writers so loved the dynamics it yielded that they wanted to keep them going. So they decided to build towards Alicia’s departure from the firm in season five.

“Once you’ve set that match to the mission,” says Robert, “you needed to have a scene where it all goes to hell.” That scene was the much-lauded desktop showdown between Alicia and Will (Josh Charles) earlier this season, in the aptly titled episode, “Hitting the Fan.”


Explosions are great, but they make for plenty of new problems to solve. Most important: Is there enough plot to carry it off? “The writers’ room is amazing about these things. They make sure we only go there if we have the plots to handle it,” says Robert. In the case of the professional split between Alicia and Will and the departure of so many fourth-year attorneys at Lockhart Gardner, they needed to be sure that in suddenly following two law firms instead of one they wouldn’t be stuck “in little cul-de-sacs,” as Robert says, in which the two camps don’t interact. “That’s one of the reasons everybody gets so cautious. Do you have enough plot to explore it? The room is worried about schmuck bait.”


Wait, did he just say “schmuck bait”?

“Oh yeah. It’s a phrase in the room,” he confirms. “Schmuck bait is kind of like the end of any Perils of Pauline kind of serial where the car is heading towards the cliff and goes over the cliff so you think the main character has died, but then you see in the next episode the main character rolls out of the car. That’s schmuck bait because it entices the audience [into believing that] something massive has happened when in fact it wasn’t massive at all. It’s making the suggestion of an explosion but then reversing it and walking it back right away.”

Michelle King cuts in: “And it’s only the schmucks who would fall for it. Only the schmucks would believe that that would happen.” Robert uses Star Trek as an example. “As many times as Spock [seemed to die] in all the seasons of Star Trek, he can’t die because the series would be over.”

Okay, so, no schmuck bait. Instead it’s about picking over the wreckage. “I think this stuff lands like a bomb in the middle of the show,” says Robert. “The wreckage is not easily passed over. You don’t say, ‘Oh, well that’s nothing. Now we can get the guys together.’ No. In reality if that happened, people don’t become friends again. People don’t fall in love again. They actually hate each other. You have this kind of turmoil you can’t next year have everybody say, ‘Hello. Here we are again. We’re all one happy family.’ And especially on network TV that’s difficult because network TV has sort of survived on the status quo. You want to build a family. You want the audience to get familiar with that family, and love them and embrace them so you try to keep that familiarity going season to season.”


Sure, Alicia and Will might never fall in love again, and yet the show is playing in a gray area. Just as it’s never been cut and dry who’s good and who’s bad on The Good Wife, it’s not so clear that Alicia and Will hate one another. To the Kings, that’s essential to the show’s MO.


“It’s not really true that they’re any less human or they’re hopefully any less loveable,” says Robert. “The difficulty is I think the show wants to embrace the complexities of seeing both sides of an argument, like to love both sides of an argument because you like the characters. The show just wants to not say, ‘this side is a good guy and that side is a bad guy.’”

They trace that back to an early inspiration: The 1980s legal series, L.A. Law. “In all its years it was on TV, they would try and say, ‘Here’s an argument you agree with,’ and they would spin that argument. And they you go but okay, now you see this side of the argument. You hear this information. You might see the prosecution or you might see the way the defense plays it, and you go, ‘Oh. That’s complex. I don’t know which side I agree with.’ And it creates a dialectic in your mind.” They wanted to do the same with good and bad. “Sometimes our lawyers who you think of as the good guys really have the bad guy argument or the reverse, or they’ll have a good argument but they use dastardly means to get a win more likely, or things end up where you think it’s a win but it turns out to be darker, that maybe the guy they represented is guilty. That has always been part of the DNA of the show.”

And this season that extended further. “What felt fun to Michelle and I this year was seeing our characters on opposite sides of the case and you wouldn’t really know who to root for. You root for one and then go, ‘Wait a minute, but that means Alicia is losing. I don’t know if I want Alicia to lose.’ But then when Alicia uses Peter or something that may be a little scummy, you’re going, ‘Well that’s not very good of her,’ and yet your cheering because of the way TV or even movies encourage you to cheer a win. It makes you cheer. So the show is built to see both sides.”

It’s a very cable-style, almost Breaking Bad-like approach. The difference: Alicia Florrick is a slow burn. “Alicia is like the frog in the boiling pot of water,” says Robert. “I mean the heat keeps getting hotter and she changes, and it’s slow change that hopefully you’ll understand. The other thing that allows us to do it on network TV is the world she’s in is very amoral. The world and the TV show…the tone of the TV show is not coming down on her for making the choices she makes because literally everybody in our Chicago, except maybe for three characters, are making some of the same amoral choices. In fact one of the things that helps the show is the fact that the show doesn’t judge her for making choices that are corrupt, let’s say.”


Perhaps the trickiest aspect of writing The Good Wife is striking the right balance between the overarching, serialized story and the weekly procedural elements. “It’s been a struggle,” says Michelle.


And the Kings admit that they stumbled in that aim in the third season. “I would say that was probably our least successful year,” says Robert, who explains that there had been network “encouragement” for them to have more self-contained stories in order to boost the ratings.

But that’s where they got into trouble. “The show seems to work best where there’s an overriding arc that takes the characters from one place to another over the course of the year, and has strong, serialized elements.” He acknowledges that as one of this season’s great strengths just as he says that it’s also the hardest thing to accomplish, at least physically. “I mean it’s really almost a nightmare of whiteboards. Our writers’ room is not built for whiteboard space. We have all these rolling whiteboards and it really becomes a forest of whiteboards. These things are massive and you’re constantly trying to wheel one out of the way to say, ‘Okay, how does this fit into the arc of the year?’ And then you finally find that board and it’s just then you need to get to another board and put them side by side. It becomes a traffic jam of whiteboards.”


One of the greatest assets of The Good Wife is its sprawling cast–not just the regulars but also the recurring guest stars, many of them character actors plucked from the New York City theater scene: Anika Noni Rose, Michael J. Fox, Anna Camp, Gary Cole, John Benjamin Hickey, Denis O’Hare, Amanda Peet, and Linda Emond, to name a few favorites, all put in place by veteran casting director Mark Saks. Having so many great actors willing to step in is wonderful, but since none of them are contracted it’s complicated to plan their appearances around their bigger commitments. But the Kings choose to see that as a positive: “One of the great overlooked muses is panic,” says Robert, who often finds that they’ve plotted a great storyline for an actor who isn’t available. “Panic is a great instigator of creative problem solving.”

In season one, they had been using Martha Plimpton on a recurring basis as an opposing lawyer named Patti Nyholm. They built a plot around that character, and then Plimpton wasn’t available. Overnight they needed another solution. They created a new lawyer, a shark who acts as if she’s an innocent underdog, and they cast Mamie Gummer to play her. “Creating new judges, new attorneys, is often just a function of not getting the casting you want,” says Robert. And yet they make it work. Gummer has been back for at least five more episodes, and somehow her faux innocence never gets old.


Being married and being creative partners comes pretty naturally at this point, says Michelle. “I can’t imagine it working any differently. We’ve gotten to a point there are things that we handle separately, there are things we handle together and it’s all kind of one big soup, whether it’s home obligations or show obligations.”


“It’s a very difficult job,” says Robert.

“I don’t understand how anyone does it solo,” says Michelle.

In fact, they’ve spoken with Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad about it, recounts Robert. “He’s just scrambling from production to editing to the writers’ room. It’s a nightmare. So to have two brains kind of doing it at the same time is just a real relief.”

Robert is good at post-production–editing, sound mixing, etc. Michelle supervises wardrobe, hair, makeup, and sets. They both work in the writers’ room, of course. And they share much of the budgetary management. Plus, they have two other executive producers who help carry the load: Brooke Kennedy in New York, where the series is shot; and David Zucker in Los Angeles, where it’s written and edited. That quirk of The Good Wife, that the Kings are based in L.A. while the show is shot 3,000 miles away, can be lamentable. “You know what it’s like?” says Robert. “It’s like watching your kids run into Disneyland and being stuck in the parking lot.”

About the author

Ari Karpel is a frequent contributor to Fast Company and Co.Create and an instructor at UCLA Extension. His writing about culture, creativity and celebrity has also appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Health, The Advocate and Tablet.