The Good Fight is the only TV show that makes sense in 2019
As politics and public life have become increasingly surreal, some pundits have distanced themselves from the madness by saying, with a shrug, "This is just 'the new normal.'" The legal drama The Good Fight, on the other hand, has spent the past two years telling stories ripped from today's headlines, grappling with sex scandals, immigration crackdowns, "fake news," and our coarsening discourse. The show signals its point-of-view in its opening credits, where stately music and lovingly photographed images of lawyerly accessories like laptops and business phones switch to shots of those same objects exploding in slow motion.
In other words: The TV series with the most to say about American life at the end of the 2010s begins each episode by blowing everything up ... and then slowing the destruction down so we can marvel at the fine detail.
The Good Fight returned for its third season Thursday night. Just as with its previous two years, a new episode will roll out every week, for roughly the next three months. They'll all be available exclusively through CBS' subscription service, "All Access." This arrangement has been both a blessing and a curse for one of TV's most entertaining and incendiary shows.
The Good Fight is a continuation of the award-winning CBS drama The Good Wife, which aired between 2009 and 2016. The sequel follows one of its predecessor's main characters — venerable Chicago attorney Diane Lockhart, played by Christine Baranski — as she starts over at a new firm, predominately run and staffed by African-American lawyers.
This new setting has proved to be a masterstroke by The Good Wife/The Good Fight creators Robert and Michelle King, allowing them and their producing partner Phil Alden Robinson not just to work with a more racially diverse cast (featuring heavyweight actors like Delroy Lindo and Audra McDonald), but to confront more directly Chicago's complicated racial politics.
Not that The Good Wife ever shied away from thorny social issues. During its seven seasons, The Good Wife pulled over 10 million viewers a week with snappily written, morally complex courtroom scenarios, in which attorneys on both sides of any given case used every tool at their disposal — public sympathy, espionage, cutting-edge technology, judge-baiting, whatever — to win. The original series was an incisive study in how modern power-brokers ply their trade.
The Good Fight is a little different in its overall intent, although the show's basic narrative structure hasn't changed. The Kings and their writing staff still balance longer plot-arcs with "case of the week"-type stories; and those cases still tend to mirror something recently in the news. The Good Fight has done stories about Milo Yiannopoulos, Bernie Madoff, and the "shitty media men" spreadsheet ... all only lightly fictionalized.
But the overall tone of The Good Fight is less cynical than The Good Wife. Before, the Kings and company presented political and legal shenanigans as a zero-sum game, with few moments of righteous triumph. Now, the writers are rejoicing more in the law's capacity for pushing back against authoritarian demagogues. Hence the show's title — which isn't really ironic.
Being on CBS All Access instead of CBS proper has allowed The Good Fight to skew a little more R-rated in its content. The series doesn't go over-the-top, but episodes do sprinkle in profanity and occasionally even nudity.
More to the point, the Kings have taken being exiled to a subscription service as a license to get more political — and in particular to attack the presidency of Donald Trump. Freed from the fear of losing advertisers, or of having their parent network get blasted in White House press briefings, The Good Fight producers have been uncommonly savage.
In season two, each episode's title was named after a day in the Trump presidency ("Day 408," "Day 415," et cetera), as though tracking an unfolding hostage crisis. The Good Fight has also built stories around the ideologically pure but professionally underqualified judges appointed by the Trump administration, and around a Russian prostitute with access to what anti-Trump conspiracy theorists have gleefully called "the pee tape."
Thursday's season premiere also featured multiple plot-lines that hit dead-ends due to characters having signed the kinds of "non-disclosure agreements" the Trump administration is notorious for enforcing. The next episode will also introduce Michael Sheen as an obscenely unscrupulous lawyer, who idolizes Trump's late mentor Roy Cohn, and argues that facts and ethics are for losers, because winners bend reality to their will.
Yet the show's primary raison d'etre isn't to fictionalize the Trump administration but to offer some kind of reasoned response to the daily mayhem. The Good Fight does this in two ways: by acknowledging that, yes, the world has indeed gone topsy-turvy; and by suggesting the American legal system may be our best option to restore normalcy. This petty, persnickety bureaucracy of lawyers and judges, so annoying and time-wasting in in so many other contexts, may be exactly what can stymie a government filled with inexperienced outsiders.
Is this message drawing an audience of 10 million viewers a week, like The Good Wife did? Probably not. As is the norm for subscription streaming services, CBS All Access doesn't provide numbers on its viewership. The service itself doesn't seem to have built much of a following yet, although in my opinion it's airing two of 2019's best TV dramas, in The Good Fight and the equally excellent Star Trek: Discovery. I wouldn't be surprised if both those shows landed in my year-end top 10 … or even top five.
The creative freedom that CBS All Access has allowed the Kings has come at a cost. The Good Fight has been well-reviewed but lightly reviewed. It doesn't get the ink of a Game of Thrones, The Handmaid's Tale ... even The Masked Singer or The Bachelor. To the extent that this series is screaming about what's happening to American life, it seems to be doing so into a void.
Perhaps that'll change this year. The outrageousness of season two certainly put the show on a few more radar screens. On the other hand, maybe the only way to make TV as wildly inventive and of-the-moment as The Good Fight is to do it when nobody's paying attention.