Before The Good Wife (2009), most people knew Julianna Margulies as ER’s (1994) Carol Hathaway, the love interest of George Clooney that helped blast his career into the monstrosity of awesome it is today. After that, she had a little difficulty breaking away from such a significant character, taking odd roles on The Sopranos (1999) and Scrubs (2001) that echoed her past role as a nurse, also landing minor appearances in cinematic oddities like Ghost Ship (2002) and Snakes on a Plane (2006).
When 2008 came along, she was cast as the lead in a legal drama called Canterbury’s Law. The show is now a mostly-forgotten entry in 2000s television, its six whole episodes leaving no trace of lasting impact.
But what happened? A legal drama starring Margulies obviously works. She’s diverse and poised, an excellent procedural actress capable of delivering passion and emotional complexity.
What happened was a perfect example of how important writing and development are to a show’s success. A great actor can carry weak material to a degree, but it’s not enough.
As The A.V. Club puts it:
“Canterbury’s Law is a lesson in fantastic casting and flawed characterization; a show that found the perfect actress to play a lawyer with a troubled past, but couldn’t create a story that allowed her to shine. Her time on Canterbury’s Law should have been a match made in heaven, but it wasn’t, quite. Its flaws weren’t the only reason it got canceled—the writers’ strike of 2007-2008 impeded production, and Fox lost faith in it after a lackluster debut, yanked it from the Monday schedule, and exiled it to Friday nights. But the series wouldn’t have been long for this world, anyway. Canterbury’s Law was straddling a few old methods of storytelling and a few new ones, and it couldn’t quite make it all come together for a memorable run. In hindsight, it is little more than a runway for Margulies, from a lead role as an attorney in a show that never found its voice, to a lead role in a show that was, figuratively, belting from the rooftops. It’s fascinating now as a six-episode-long audition reel for the actress, who must have impressed Robert and Michelle King, showrunners of The Good Wife, and their casting agent, Mark Saks. It’s televisual déjà-vu—the same woman navigates life as a high-powered attorney, a mother, a wife, and a human with feelings. But in the vast differences between the shows, Canterbury’s Law also proves to be a case study in subtleties—or, to be precise, the lack thereof.”
Canterbury’s Law lacked nuance and characterization. The above article goes on to reference a scene where a witness punches Canterbury in the face while giving testimony. It was brazen and messy, lacking control and discipline as seen in The Good Wife. Canterbury’s Law was traditional television-making where The Good Wife is innovative in its camerawork. In short, everything about Canterbury’s Law was effectively batting practice for the big game of The Good Wife, and Marguiles was never given an opportunity to hit the ball.
“It is absolutely uncanny how Canterbury’s Law stumbled upon a formula for success and then more or less flubbed the delivery. Not only did the series anticipate how successful Margulies would be in a lead role as an attorney, but it also anticipated some storytelling devices that The Good Wife still leans on. Most crucially, both shows gave Margulies different material to work with. Both Alicia and Elizabeth are formidable attorneys; both are prone to bursts of passion concerning their children. Both are having trouble in their marriages. Both, eventually, cheat on their spouses with someone at work. Yet while Elizabeth Canterbury is entirely about the illusion of power—The Good Wife is far more interested in the quiet reach of real assertion. Alicia Florrick doesn’t drive a Porsche to work; she doesn’t have to, because Julianna Margulies conveys Alicia’s power just by the way she walks into a room.”