“The Good Wife” debuted eight months after the inauguration of Barack Obama as America’s 44th president, and implicit in its worldview was the idea that a technocratic, centrist elite could solve almost every problem. Even in the midst of the thorniest cases, the show had a smooth assurance about how the world worked; undergirding its sprightly energy and acrobatic storytelling was a confidence that only rarely tipped into frustrating hubris. Watching smart lawyers enjoy their verbal jousting and engage in subtle but sexy flirting was often fun, and even when they lost cases — or messed up their love lives — they could safely retreat to an upscale bar to drink pinot noir and find solace in barbed irreverence and prickly friendships. No matter how badly things went for Alicia Florrick, it’s not like the world was ending.
“The Good Fight,” a spinoff of “The Good Wife” and the flagship of the streaming service CBS All Access, blows all that up. Literally. In the show’s opening credits, handsomely lit totems of the professional classes — an office phone, a leather handbag, a vase of tasteful flowers — explode. These images might be a bit too on-the-nose for some; one of the things that made “The Good Wife” addictive (and unusual for a broadcast network drama) was that it didn’t usually spell out subtexts audience members could grasp on their own. But there’s no doubt that the characters inhabiting the fractured landscape — and the somewhat divergent storylines — of “The Good Fight” live in a very different world than the one the Florricks knew. And no one’s existence has changed more than that of Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski).
In the opening minutes of the first episode, Diane watches as Donald Trump is sworn in as the nation’s 45th president. She snaps off the TV midway through the oath of office and goes to work, sure of her place in the world of connected Chicago lawyers and well-heeled Democratic donors. Before the 50-minute pilot is over, the jarring changing of the guard in Washington is the least of her troubles.
“The Good Fight,” doesn’t often refer to Alicia Florrick or to the Trump era in its first two episodes (the first will air on CBS; subsequent episodes will arrive weekly on CBS All Access). But one hopes that as its 10-episode first season gets underway in earnest, the show will have a field day with the kinds of newsy issues (privacy rights, spy-agency snooping, governmental overreach) that drove some of the liveliest installments of “The Good Wife.” These episodes do touch on matters relating to police violence and the legal world’s increasing reliance on algorithms and tech-sector funding. But most of the first two installments are spent demonstrating that “The Good Fight,” thematically and structurally, will be fairly different from its predecessor.
One of the most compelling aspects of the original show was that it depicted the moral journey of one woman — a wronged spouse and an increasingly canny operator who held her cards very close to her vest. When “The Good Wife” was operating at peak proficiency, it smartly showcased Margulies’ charismatic, savvy performance and its own commitment to depicting Alicia’s professional and emotional journey in all its ugliness, ambiguity and aspiration.
“The Good Fight,” on the other hand, has three centers of gravity, and it remains to be seen whether the show can successfully balance the storylines of its core trio and weave those plots together in ways that result in deeply rewarding, character-driven drama. The first two episodes are generally efficient and they display a familiar dry wit, and the cast is uniformly excellent. But “The Good Fight” has to incorporate a host of supporting characters and cases of the week into the backstories of its multiple leads, and the results are occasionally a bit bumpy and scattered. All in all, however, it’s a promising endeavor, even if the lead characters are so understandably stressed that it’s a pleasure to check in on amusing scene-stealers like Eli Gold’s enterprising daughter, Marissa (Sarah Steele), and Denis O’Hare’s delightfully eccentric judge.
Baranski brings a heartbreaking rawness to her performance as Diane, who never got enough meaningful screen time on “The Good Wife.” In the new show, Diane has lost everything in a Ponzi scheme and goes to work at a law firm in which most of her colleagues are African-American. The contours of the Madoff-like fraud story are a lot more predictable than the complex racial and personal dynamics at the new firm. One hopes that the latter gets more focus than the former, especially because storylines revolving around Diane’s new job give screen time to terrific actors like Erica Tazel and Delroy Lindo, who play law partners Barbara Kolstad and Adrian Boseman. In any event, one of the most unstable — and thus fascinating — elements of the new show involves the power dynamics on display in the new workplace, in which a white woman who had been used to exercising the power she fought to obtain has to subordinate her will to the people of color around her. Barbara and Adrian have their own agendas, and they seem just as likely to play hardball as any of Diane’s previous colleagues (a number of whom don’t feature prominently in the new show, and, truth be told, I won’t miss most of them).
Cush Jumbo returns as the long-suffering Lucca Quinn, who ends up working alongside Diane, not always comfortably. Jumbo is a master of the seething-but-patient facial expression, and Lucca’s implacable endurance in the face of the condescension and dismissal of her co-workers was a highlight of the later seasons of “The Good Wife.” Lucca often comes up with creative ideas and solutions, and rarely gets (or expects) the attention she deserves for her wit and intelligence. In an echo of that slightly worrying pattern, the first two episodes don’t delve much into Lucca’s psychology or agenda (though one episode shows her lover’s bare behind; like a few swear words appropriately scattered into the dialogue, these are the benefits of inhabiting the anything-goes realm of streaming).
One hopes meaty Lucca-driven stories arrive soon: Half of the reason to stick with this show — and fans of solid legal dramas and aficionados of “The Good Wife” should do so — is to see whether it delves into her moral and psychological journey more deeply. As was the case with Alicia, Lucca makes her character’s silences and secrets as interesting as her decisive statements and actions.
The new member of the core trio is Maia Rindell (Rose Leslie), an inexperienced lawyer connected to the family who ran the Ponzi scheme. Like Lucca and Diane, Maia is a woman with something to prove, and Leslie does a fine job of depicting her character’s shock and her tremulous resolution to rebuilding her life.
What these women share — aside from screen time in a couple of reasonably interesting cases — is a determination to move on and make the best of the difficult new circumstances they find themselves in. But Alicia — and Obama — are like exes that cast a long shadow over the supposedly new lives of the people they left behind. Their absences leave large holes in the landscape, as well as people who feel demoralized when they cast their minds back to just a year or two ago. Diane’s plight is thus personal but also metaphorical: She likens the collapse of every pillar of her supposedly solid and trustworthy world to a nightmare. It’s a sentiment that many of this show’s viewers will understand.
But perhaps the most topical thing about this promising drama is that Diane and Maia, two privileged white women who are forced to wake up by events they can hardly believe, are beginning to learn what Lucca and Barbara already know. No one is especially inclined to fight for them, and if they want to survive, they will have to save themselves. Maybe these women can do that together, but the jury’s still out.
For an in-depth discussion of “The Good Fight” featuring creators Robert and Michelle King and star Christine Baranski, check out Variety’s Remote Controlled podcast.