Television’s smartest network drama went out last year with a slap. The Good Wife, the hour-long CBS procedural about savvy lawyers and sexy investigators, looked as if it was going to end where it began, with Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) standing by her politician husband, Peter (Chris Noth), at a press conference while he admitted to a scandal. This time, though, Alicia broke the cycle. She dashed away, backstage, where she was met with a slap to the face.
That came from Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), her boss-turned-mentor-turned–firm partner. Alicia deserved that slap — she had forced Diane’s husband to reveal under oath that he’d been unfaithful — and Diane delivered it with choreographed precision. A veteran of Broadway and film and TV comedy, Baranski moves with a dancer’s grace and reacts with a top comic’s timing. Her regal manner commands respect, and for most of the series’ run she played the smartest person in the room — one of the too-few examples on television of a woman over forty cannily ruling her world. But by the end she fell too easily for her colleagues’ transparent schemes. The Good Wife let Diane down, just like Alicia did.
So it was with trepidation that I watched the first two episodes of The Good Fight, a Diane-centered spin-off set one year after that slap and produced by Good Wife creators Robert and Michelle King, along with Phil Alden Robinson. I’m thrilled to report that the series is off to an auspicious start. It’s also mostly a clean start, accessible to new viewers, picking up The Good Wife‘s crack weekly-case storytelling but layering in fresh narrative arcs. Baranski returns with Diane’s brilliance intact — the character is once again written at the level of the star’s performance. She’s joined by scene-stealers Cush Jumbo as cunning associate Lucca Quinn and Sarah Steele as plucky Marissa Gold, daughter of Peter’s campaign manager. We also meet Maia Rindell (Rose Leslie), newly minted lawyer and Diane’s goddaughter. Though Lucca’s and Marissa’s storylines have yet to reveal themselves, all four women demonstrate rich and intelligible interiorities.
The series is further invigorated by the freedom of its online platform — CBS All Access — which, unlike CBS proper, allows its characters to swear and reveal more skin. The Good Fight is already using the former to strong emotional effect: When Diane shouts her first fuck!, the curse amplifies the devastation of the moment, driving home just how truly fucked she is.
(Nudity has been limited so far to bare shoulders on women and one full moon from Lucca’s hunky lover.)
The Kings have long created drama out of real-life politics. The Good Fight opens on Diane sitting alone in her apartment watching Trump’s inauguration, her face contorted somewhere between horror and disbelief. She clicks off the set and stands in a huff, tossing the remote to the ground. A drum pounds on the soundtrack, and for a breath it looks as if Diane — that badass progressive activist — is off to join the resistance. But instead of figuratively punching fascists in court, she elects to retire. The Good Fight, like its predecessor, gathers narrative strength in fake-outs.
Diane promises her partners, including Good Wife trickster David Lee (Zach Grenier), to finish one last case. But as she goes to trial, she receives shattering news: A Ponzi scheme involving Maia’s parents has left her bankrupt. Her accountant advises she put off retiring, but David Lee, ever conniving, refuses to take her back. No one else will hire her — her friends invested in the same company on her recommendation — save the predominantly African-American firm run by Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo) and Barbara Kolstad (Erica Tazel). (Lucca’s an associate there, too.) Diane accepts their offer, bringing both Maia and Marissa with her. I won’t spoil the subplot that brings Marissa into Diane’s life, but I will say that Steele remains superb at offhand comedy.
Among The Good Wife‘s signature achievements was its examination of the failure of white liberals to stamp out subtle racism in the workplace. The Good Fight reverses the racial perspective. Barbara, though still a minor character in the first episodes, introduces an interesting dynamic by resisting Diane’s hiring for reasons she won’t name outright, but that clearly involve race. “Worried about changing the firm’s culture?” Adrian asks as they fight over the decision to bring Diane aboard.
The Good Wife mastered the procedural art of pulling weekly cases from real headlines. That feeling of recognition was one of the most pleasurable aspects of the show. Now, when every day brings yet another news alert concerning government infringement against human rights, The Good Fight will have no shortage of material. The series seems poised to delve into the complexities of rape culture: Taking full advantage of its platform’s lax language restrictions, episode two brings Maia into a maelstrom of obscene phone calls from angry men who lost their money in her family’s investment scheme. Like Gamergate dudes, her attackers express frustration through rape threats, and as she listens to the voicemails, Maia’s small frame shrinks under the weight of their abuse — she has yet to build Alicia’s emotional armor. The Good Wife, with its disdain for simple portrayals of good and evil, would have complicated her growth with ethical slip-ups of her own doing. I hope that The Good Fight‘s writers harbor similar ambitions.
The Good Fight airs on CBS All Access.