Julianna Margulies: Love, honour, betray

Julianna Margulies breathes new life into the familiar role of cheated politician's spouse in 'The Good Wife'

Yet another smartly dressed, well-groomed and, as a libel judge once famously put it, "fragrant" politician's wife reluctantly meets the press, standing – stony-faced and eyes down – next to her financially and sexually disgraced husband as he reads from a prepared statement peppered with familiar phrases: "An hour ago I resigned... heavy heart... to fight the charges... never abused my office... failure of judgement."

In real-life political sex scandals, this stand-by-your-man routine is often the end of the affair, literally and metaphorically, as the couple retreat from public view to rebuild their lives. But in a new US TV drama, The Good Wife, that begins on Channel 4 next week – and last Sunday won a Golden Globe for its leading actress, Julianna Margulies – this humiliating and hypocritical ritual is only the start of the story.

The ex-ER actress Margulies plays Alicia Florrick, whose husband, Peter (Sex and the City's Chris Noth), an Illinois state attorney, is behind bars, accused of trading lighter sentences for financial and sexual favours. After that smartly choreographed opening scene, we head six months further down the line – when Alicia, who has legal fees to pay and two children (Grace and Zach) to raise, goes back to work at the law firm she left eight years previously.

Alicia may have graduated 15 years earlier, top of her class at an elite law school, but she has to start at the bottom again, competing for a junior litigator's position with a recent graduate whose idea of an introduction is to say: "I don't want to be ageist, but I admire what you're doing here... raising a family and then jumping back in. My mum is thinking of doing the same thing".

To make matters worse, her husband had made enemies on his way up, including the judge in Alicia's first case back in the saddle (a woman accused of faking a car-jacking in order to kill her ex-husband), as well as the new state attorney, who first leaked the sex tape starring Peter to the press. As Alicia hisses at Peter when she visits him in jail, and he tries to glibly assure her that he can beat the rap for abusing his office, "They are playing a tape in Grace's (school) computer lab of you sucking the toes of a hooker. You think I care about the small print of your employment contract?"

With serendipitous timing, The Good Wife's debut on CBS in the US last autumn coincided with the fall of a real-life Illinois politician, the state's governor, Rod Blagojevich, who was first impeached and then prosecuted on corruption charges. The sexual infidelity storyline could have been borrowed from any number of recent American scandals, from John Edwards (who only this week finally admitted that he fathered a child during the extramarital affair that dogged his bid for the White House in 2008) to the pious, married Republican governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, whose affair with an Argentinian journalist came to light last summer.

While these scandals lend currency to The Good Wife, it was actually the demise of another married state governor, New York's Eliot Spitzer, that directly inspired it. Spitzer resigned in March 2008 after being caught in a hotel with a prostitute, and the character of Alicia mirrors Spitzer's wife, Silda, who, looking haggard and dazed, but also a tight bundle of burgeoning fury, stood beside her husband at the inevitable press conference. A corporate lawyer specialising in mergers and acquisitions, Silda Spitzer put her career on hold for her husband to pursue his political ambitions.

Julianna Margulies is keen not to seem salacious. "It's very important to all of us on the show that it isn't about demeaning who they are and gaining from their downfall," she told the New York Daily News. "It's very painful what they went though." And Margulies should have some inkling of that pain after this beautifully controlled performance that justifiably won her a Golden Globe last weekend.

The actor had been struggling to find satisfying roles in the wake of her exit from ER. Nominated for an Emmy award every year during her six-year stint as Nurse Hathaway, Margulies has had a somewhat peripatetic career since her character vanished to Seattle with George Clooney's Dr Doug Ross in 2000. There was Snakes on a Plane, of course, as well as brief stints on to The Sopranos and Scrubs, and that final season ER reunion. She eventually won a title role as an attorney in the Fox legal drama Canterbury's Law, only to see it fall victim to the 2007-08 writers' strike – a stroke of luck because Alicia Florrick is a peach of a role.

The Good Wife is not entirely original, and Paula Milne's 1996 TV drama The Politician's Wife, from the fag-end of the government of John Major (an extramarital shagger, himself), featured a typically heartfelt performance from Juliet Stevenson as the wife of a Westminster MP caught with his pants down. What it does very well, however, is to entwine this strong human interest element with a cannily scripted, multilayered legal drama in the style of Damages (minus the dizzying flashbacks). How does a wife cope with such a humiliatingly public betrayal, and pick up the reins of a career long ago sacrificed to her husband's ambitions? Or, to be less high-powered about it, how does anybody forgive an errant spouse and fit back into the workplace after a long break raising children?

In one of several neat, economical scenes towards the start of the first episode, Alicia is welcomed (sort of) back to the law firm by the only female partner, Diane, an ultra-competitive bundle of bitchy insecurities. "Not only are you coming back to the workplace fairly late but you have some very prominent baggage," she tells Alicia, before pointing to a framed photograph of herself with Hillary Clinton. "But hey, if she can do it, so can you."

'The Good Wife' begins on Monday at 10pm on Channel 4

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