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Will The Good Fight get nasty enough?

The Good Fight in all important respects the sequel series to Robert and Michelle King’s enduring hit The Good Wife – starts as its predecessor did: with a fall from grace. Where The Good Wife opened with Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies, absent but not unmentioned in the new series) acting as a direct corollary to real-life figures like Huma Abedin and (of course) Hillary Clinton, women effectively forced to very publicly “stand by their men” in service of broader political goals, The Good Fight centres on Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski, one of the only working actors who could have successfully threaded both extreme entitlement and crestfallen wisdom), whose fall comes when her attempt to retire in leisure and wealth are thwarted by the minor detail that her life savings were tied up in a Madoff-esque Ponzi scheme. (On shows written by the Kings, when plots or characters directly evoke specific real people or events, those real people or events are always name-checked so that we know they know we know.) To make matters worse, Diane got some of her influential friends and at least one major charity to park their money there as well, making her both mark and unwitting co-conspirator.

Right off the bat, The Good Fight doubles down on implicating its protagonist in a corrupt milieu. Where Alicia took a few seasons to really get down in the muck, Diane lives there, and has for a long time – over the course of The Good Wife, Diane constantly sold out one conviction or another as long as it served the greater good (the “greater good” consisting generally of whatever filled her law firm’s coffers). In The Good Fight, those years of complacent “professionalism” exact a harrowing price, or threatens to: at once, she seems poised to lose her fortune, access to steady employment, and the respect of virtually all of her peers. Yet by the end of the first episode, she has a job offer again, from Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo), head of a large, majority-black law fim, who offers to make her their “diversity hire.” White privilege is a helluva drug.

True to the Kings’ form, Boseman’s firm does “good” work (their specialty: taking on police departments in high-profile brutality cases) insomuch as it has proven to be lucrative for the time being. Just as the Clinton campaign relied heavily on data science to make campaign decisions (which ultimately proved ruinous), Boseman’s firm relies on the judgment of uber-wealthy financiers who run detailed simulations on prospective cases to determine if these new cases stand to be lucrative enough. This is the Kings’ greatest strength: contrary to the nauseatingly naively aspirational respectability politics of Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing, they recognize that capitalist power structures are genetically incapable of unprofitable altruism, whether “profit” takes the form of literal capital or, even more lucratively, the perception of virtue or authenticity.

Christine Baranski and Cush Jumbo in CBS’ The Good Fight

The flipside of this knowledge is that the Kings not only recognize the narcotic drive of power accumulation, they’re beholden to it themselves. In the 156-episode history of The Good Wife, in which even very complex cases were generally covered from start to finish over the course of a single episode, the number of times Alicia and her team actually lost a case can probably be counted on one hand.

Yet The Good Fight opens with all of Diane’s work accruing capital, building a legacy, and securing a luxurious safety net coming to nothing. For anyone who’s grown disillusioned with neoliberalism’s broken promises, this may feel like a tacit acknowledgement of its essential bankruptcy. After all, just as Diane’s careful, canny navigations of corporate and political power and expertise have proven materially near-useless, every previous moment in the American project has led us to the current moment, in which an an openly corrupt, predatory megalomaniac and con man has been able to assume control of the most powerful office in the Western world. It’s not for nothing that the very first scene of The Good Fight is of Diane watching, and abruptly turning off, Trump’s inauguration.

The Kings have spoken of having to do last-minute reshoots of this and several other key sequences in the early episodes to adjust for the Trump win. (They got off easy: South Park’s entire last season hinged on a Clinton victory, and their subsequent forced readjustment has made them swear off serialized storytelling altogether.) It’s not hard to imagine the original version of this sequence: Diane watches the inaugural address with a contented smile, ready to ride off in the sunset and into retirement, before the news of her misallocated funds hits. In that version, the news would come as a surprise gut-punch, a sharp comedown from an idyllic moment she might well have taken some credit for as a fellow “nasty woman.” (Ads for The Good Fight have cleverly, even cynically, targeted the #ImWithHer crowd with its tagline: “Get Nasty.”) In the released version, the one that takes place in our reality, Trump’s victory instead acts as a foreshadowing of the smaller perils to immediately follow.

The show’s other primary struggle belongs to Maia Rindell (Game of Thrones’ Rose Leslie, taking up the Archie Panjabi mantle of The One With The Hilariously Inconsistent American Accent), whose father has been accused of the aforementioned Ponzi scheme. She’s actually the more direct Alicia counterpart in that she’s just getting to know the dark side of public notoriety and the finer points of navigating power structures. In these early episodes, Maia is Diane’s protege in more ways than one, looking up to Diane as she begins to take her first cases, as well as having to deal with deep personal betrayal for apparently the first time in her life – something Diane will be all too ready to help her navigate.

In the relationships already established, The Good Fight has a chance to move on from some of The Good Wife’s more nagging limitations. (Please understand that this is coming from someone who very much enjoyed The Good Wife.) Diane’s position as an interloper at a majority-black firm gives the Kings a chance to tackle issues at the intersection of race and power, which The Good Wife struggled with to often-embarrassing effect, mostly because it had a tendency to completely sideline every black character that wasn’t a drug dealer. Less likely, but perhaps even more tantalizing, is the possibility of intergenerational conflict. The greatest ideological divide in America is principally drawn not on race or class lines, but on age – according to the Washington Post, American millenials now have a higher opinion of socialism than capitalism, a divide that seems likely to intensify given their dismal job (forget “career”) prospects and the likelihood of a new recession. If Diane and Maia wind up ideologically aligned despite the generational gap, it would be a missed opportunity. On any other show, this would probably never come up, but the Kings’ series have featured innumerable sequences of characters debating their values and worldviews, and have even defined series-long relationships around those differences.

Rose Leslie and Heléne Yorke in CBS’ The Good Fight

The Good Wife excelled as a character-based drama first and foremost, and as sociopolitical commentary a distant second. While it was better than any contemporary series at making wry observations about current events, it often stopped (deliberately) short of making any definitive judgments, preferring to paint all sides in shades of grey whenever possible. In a way, The Good Wife‘s principal characters were consummate Democrats, too enmeshed in gamesmanship to consider the worthiness of the terms and the long-term viability of the game itself. (It is perhaps not a coincidence that The Good Wife‘s entire seven-season run took place during the Obama administration, a time of supreme liberal complacency.) The Good Fight emerges in a very different political climate, and it will be fascinating to see if the Kings choose to use this moment to reorient their series’ relationship to political realities. In their previous series, the loony, short-lived satire BrainDead, alien bugs invaded D.C. to stand in as a metaphor for the way the American political system is hopelessly logjammed by hyper-partisan ideologues beholden to party over country. Only a couple of months after its cancellation, BrainDead already seems hopelessly quaint now that the would-be “opposition party” stares down incipient fascists while providing no coherent vision to combat them with. 

Even only a few episodes in, The Good Fight is a fascinating mess of contradictions: it acknowledges the failure of the neoliberal project even as its characters, much like the current Democratic Party, scramble to keep their illusions of its continued viability afloat. It touches on predatory capitalism, hopelessly aloof data science, political performativity (in an amusing third-episode subplot, a supporting character pretends to be a Trump voter in a bid to keep the lights on), and the bone-deep corruption that seems to seep into every powerful homestead. More interestingly, for the time being, it’s the only fictional series that is not only willing but eager to directly engage with the Trump era on its own terms, even as some viewers long for a return to old dynamics. The Kings can choose to take risks and shake up their formula, or continue to fine reliable entertainment out of having smart characters outfox each other as everything around them rots from the inside out. Will they remain content as entertaining, canny chroniclers of the diseased state of things, or will they get truly nasty and try their hands at a diagnosis?

Written By

Simon is a sometimes writer and podcaster living in Toronto.

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