Tanner Stransky
March 05, 2010 AT 05:00 AM EST

CBS, Tuesdays, 10-11PM

Tensions are running high on the Cook County courthouse set of CBS’ The Good Wife today. ”Reasonable doubt?” asks Josh Charles, who plays power attorney Will Gardner, punctuating every syllable for emphasis. Alicia Florrick, his co-counsel and the show’s central character (portrayed by ER alum Julianna Margulies), sits at the nearby defense table with a stoic look on her face, deep in contemplation. ”What exactly,” Gardner continues, ”is reasonable doubt?”

The question of doubt, clearly, isn’t meant only for the jury, who’ll later decide the fate of a college girl accused of shooting her sorority sister. Here, ”Doubt” — also the title of the April episode of Wife that is shooting on this chilly February day in Brooklyn — doubles as a personal query for the beleaguered Alicia, who is once again at a crossroads in her life. Specifically, she recently welcomed — or rather, allowed — her disgraced husband, former Illinois state’s attorney Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), back into her home after he was caught with a prostitute and incarcerated on corruption charges. Did she do the right thing by not divorcing Peter? Should she have let him come back? Does she even love him anymore? And how do her recent, increasingly romantic interactions with her boss Will — who continues to rail on about the nature of doubt to the jury — factor in? What does it all mean, exactly?

For one thing, all this doubt provides a boatload of delicious, transformative, in-the-crosshairs drama, leading fans to gravitate toward the freshman hit in droves — an average of 13.3 million viewers each week. Not only is there the intrigue surrounding every aspect of the Florrick marriage, but audiences have also wedded themselves to Alicia’s journey back to the workplace at Chicago law firm Stern, Lockhart & Gardner. Since she’d taken 15 years off to be a wife and mother, Alicia started phase 2 of her career at the bottom of the lawyerly ladder, meaning she now has to compete for one junior-associate position against twentysomething Cary Agos (Gilmore Girls‘ Matt Czuchry) during a six-month trial period, which is nearly up (expect a decision by the season finale in late May). But Alicia’s found some help at the firm. In addition to her old law-school pal and potential love interest Will, she’s encountered two female allies, enigmatic private investigator Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi) and tough-as-nails partner Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski).

The Good Wife has proved itself unique in that it gives viewers the best of both worlds — acting as a case-of-the-week procedural drama (with open-and-shut stories every episode) and also stirring up engrossing serialized drama courtesy of the tabloid-worthy personal lives of Margulies and Noth’s contentious lead couple. While Margulies says she was originally worried that doing a procedural drama might get boring — ”One of the reasons Murder, She Wrote was on for so long was that America loves an ending after each show, where you can solve it and it’s done” — she and the rest of the cast have been pleasantly surprised to see CBS continue to ask the writers to keep the Florrick family drama front and center. ”You’d expect a network to say, ‘No, no, no! More cases! More cases!”’ says Robert King, who created and executive-produces the series along with his wife, Michelle. ”Our biggest challenge is figuring out how little we can tell about the courtroom case and get by.”

One way the show keeps it interesting is by infusing both risqué stories and quirky details into the legal and familial story-line mix. For instance, the seemingly typical courtroom case mentioned earlier concerns not only a sorority shoot-out but a threesome as well (that’s right — a ménage è trois on CBS!), while a February episode featured Cary hilariously tripping on psychedelic mushrooms. Finally, allow us to enter into evidence the show’s breakout star, Panjabi, whose Kalinda lurks around Chicago crime scenes in supersexy thigh-high boots and leather, leaving a trail of erotic mystery in her wake thanks to her ambiguous sexual preference. ”I love the idea that there’s not just one episode dedicated to her where we learn about her backstory,” says Panjabi. ”You will learn more about her, but gradually.”

The episode being shot today hints at the intoxicating spell of uneasiness The Good Wife will cast during the final weeks of its first season. ”It echoes the whole premise of what this show is about,” explains Margulies during a quick break in filming. ”You can make plans all you want — but life has a way of turning out differently.” Which brings us back to the fragile state of the Florrick union. The central question throughout the rest of the season becomes: Will Alicia ultimately take a page out of the Book of Sanford (as in Jenny) and divorce Peter, or the Book of Spitzer (as in Silda) and stand by her man? ”The very strength of the show is that it leaves people wondering and it’s open to interpretation,” says Baranski. ”Is she gonna leave him? Do we really want to answer that question yet?” Adds Noth: ”I don’t know if they’ll be able to recover or not — that’s part of the ongoing drama…. I am fascinated by the blind ambition of politicians and how they balance that with their family.”

Potentially getting in the way of that reconciliation is Peter’s wholly unvetted decision to reenter the political area before repairing things with Alicia — and what that decision means for their already foundering relationship. To compensate for being stuck under house arrest while he awaits a retrial, the former (and future?) politician will selfishly transform the apartment into his campaign headquarters, complete with an all-too-literal ”kitchen cabinet” political team. Faced with his resurgent (and troublesome) ambitions, there’s no way Alicia can forgive Peter…or can she? ”That’s the question,” Margulies teases. No one close to the production will hint either way, but it is clear that there’s another hiccup in that department: Alicia’s growing flirtation with Will is destined to slow down — or is that speed up? — the reconciliation with her husband. ”All of a sudden, everything is shifting, and it’s opening up her vulnerability to allow feelings to come up,” says Margulies. ”This Will Gardner person, they have history. It’s comfortable yet very exciting.”

That’s not the only workplace drama on tap. Because of the upheaval at Stern, Lockhart & Gardner, the job competition between Alicia and Cary blows wide open when Diane and Will decide to bring on a third partner to increase cash flow with additional clients. Sure, the ouster of the show’s namesake character may seem nearly impossible, but the spoiler-loathing Margulies insists nothing is certain. ”Technically, the show could go on and I could just be the good wife and not the good lawyer anymore,” says the star, who’s already taken home both a Golden Globe and a SAG award for her role in the drama, with a smirk. ”I could, technically! You never know. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. I have a feeling they’re going to work it out.”

The Good Wife Cheat Sheet
Here’s what you need to catch up.

1. Scandal!
Illinois state’s attorney Peter Florrick (Chris Noth) was found with a prostitute and sent to jail for corruption. His wife, Alicia (Julianna Margulies), privately fumed but publicly stood by his side. After months of incarceration, Peter was recently released under house arrest and is back living with Alicia, where he’s prepping for a retrial and attempting to relaunch his political career.

2. Back to work
The fallout from Peter’s scandal forced Alicia to return to work after 15 years of raising children. Currently an attorney at Stern, Lockhart & Gardner, Alicia is vying for a junior-associate position against the fresh-from-law-school Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry).

3. Payback
Alicia was friends with one of the firm’s partners, Will Gardner (Josh Charles), in law school. Now romantic feelings between the scorned (but still married) Alicia and bachelor Will are blossoming — and could put the brakes on her reconciliation with Peter.

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