Had "The Good Wife" not succeeded in its first season on CBS, creators Robert and Michelle King would have been happy to let the final scene of their 13th episode stand as the series finale.
The episode ended with a knock on the door, as the wayward husband portrayed by Chris Noth returns home from jail and greets his wronged wife Alicia, played by series star Julianna Margulies.
Instead, the scene is the starting point for the rest of the series' life, beginning Tuesday at 10 p.m. EST. Disgraced Chicago politician Peter Florrick is under house arrest, trapped among a family changed because of his infidelities and not really sure if it wants him back.
"The Good Wife" has been a strong performer for CBS, nestled into a popular Tuesday lineup with the "NCIS" franchise, and the Kings know it will be on at least through next season and probably beyond. A scripted hybrid part procedural and part an ongoing rumination on a damaged public marriage, the series has been a star turn for Margulies, familiar to viewers through roles on "ER" and "The Sopranos."
"You would never have wanted to end it where it would be such a conclusion that everyone's satisfied, because that's not Alicia's life," said Robert King, one half of the husband-and-wife team that produces the series. "Alicia's life is filled with questions."
Among the upcoming questions: Will Peter be able to handle house arrest without going crazy? How does Alicia deal with a law firm that becomes increasingly ethics-challenged to survive? And is the law school buddy who gave her a chance to work more than just a buddy?
The Kings' inspiration for "The Good Wife" is obvious: the Spitzers, the McGreaveys, the Clintons and all those other marriages turned upside down by a politician's bad private behavior. The font seems never-ending; the Sanfords and Edwards just keep the idea burning.
In all these scandals, the Kings were more interested in the characters at the edge of the screen, the wives, and thought they offered fertile ground.
"Those women were a heck of a lot more interesting than the men who were cheating on them," Michelle King said. "You start to wonder, 'what is the reason they're not running away?'"
Alicia Florrick is not running. She's got a family to raise and protect, needs to work, and the betrayal and hurt caused by the man she deeply loved can't be sorted out in a day.
"Are people allowed to screw up?" Margulies said. "Or is there such a thing as forgiveness and can you get past forgiveness? Or will it bleed into every single conversation that they have? That's what's going to be interesting, because she has changed."
Margulies said she has empathy for the real-life women caught in similar situations. One scene in particular has stuck with her: when she sees her character's children have come across a Web site where people are voting on whether the Florricks (their parents) should stay together or not. The couple is being exposed and talked about as if they didn't exist in real life.
The Kings imagine a woman caught in this situation would turn inward and value her privacy even more. Margulies plays the character with caution and a steely mask.
"Julianna does so much with her face that we find ourselves cutting wonderful lines, lines that we love," Robert King said. "I mean, we are writers, so we love our own writing. But then it would be like, `Why would she say that? The audience would read that on her face.'"
From the series' beginning, Noth has been billed as a guest star, not a regular, who works part time. The schedule appealed to Noth, who felt burnt out by his stint on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." But it was also important to the Kings, since it forced them to make Alicia's story, not Peter's, central to "The Good Wife."
Noth's character is fascinating in itself, an alpha male bent on resurrecting his political career yet never sure where he stands at home. "It makes the relationship very alive, because you never know where it's going," Noth said. "I'll never know if she'll forgive me."
The arrangement with Noth also compelled producers to establish the ensemble, specifically in the law firm where Alicia works. Christine Baranski and Josh Charles play the two partners running things, Matt Czuchry a hotshot law school grad who competes with Alicia, and Archie Panjabi, a wily investigator who befriends Alicia despite her initial skepticism.
Beyond popularity and quality rarely given in television, Margulies has two reasons to be happy with how "The Good Wife" has worked out. One is that Helen Hunt, reportedly the first choice for her role, turned it down, and the other is that production was moved from California to New York, where she lives.
"I'm beyond grateful," she said. "For me, it's the perfect situation. I can leave every night and go home to my family."