The Good Fight
Women struggle for balance in new drama.
[warning: This includes spoilers to the first episode]
"The Good Fight" debuted Sunday night and is it ever good. CBS’s new legal/political drama is meant to draw viewers to the new CBS All Access (misnamed, since it’s cable and thus only accessible to those willing to pay for it) channel as its first scripted series.
Mission accomplished. CBS tossed the first episode out as a tease on the network and it’s such great viewing it’s difficult to imagine ratings will fall off much as the show goes to cable next week. (Spoiler alert: the second episode, which was made available at CBS All Access after the first episode debuted is even better than the first.)
CBS’s darkly satiric drama "The Good Wife" ended in 2016 after seven seasons. The show that brought politics and the law together with deft humor and sharp dialogue generated a slew of Emmy nominations and many wins and with the exception of one rocky season, was uniformly satisfying. So much so, that it was hard to let the show go when it ended, but lead actress Julianna Margulies wanted to move on and several other key players, notably Josh Charles and the provocative Archie Panjabi, had left in 2014 and 2015.
Yet creators Robert and Michelle King clearly knew there was more story to tell with other core characters and on February 19 debuted "The Good Fight."
The spin-off is not, as many spin-offs tend to be, an also-ran. Starring Christine Baranski, the only actor on "The Good Wife" to receive Emmy nominations for each of six seasons of "The Good Wife," "The Good Fight" is as unique as it is powerful. If we weren’t already familiar with some of the characters and background, the show could easily stand on its own–and does.
Baranski, who has also spent years on the New York stage and has the Tony awards to show for it, is a superb actress. As Diane Lockhart, lead partner of what is now, in "The Good Fight," the Chicago law firm of Lockhart, Decker, Gussman, Lee, Lyman, Gilbert-Lurie, Kagan, Tannebaum, & Associates, Baranski plays a woman of power and means with fabulously, chicly elegant designer clothes and perfectly coiffed hair.
In "The Good Wife," Diane had been considered for a judgeship and her involvement with Emily’s List and other feminist political groups had also led her to consider running for office. She was, of course, a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton.
"The Good Fight" opens to a scene we are all familiar with and which sets a tone for what’s to come. Diane sits, fully dressed, on the sofa in her apartment, the drapes drawn against the daylight, watching TV. We hear Donald Trump taking the oath of office. Diane turns off the TV in mid-oath–hers as well as his–and leaves the room.
(The show’s producers had to re-cut some of the show’s premiere because they, like the rest of the country, presumed Hillary Clinton would be the next president.)
Cut to Diane headed to Provence to look at a property where she clearly intends to retire in spectacular Cezanne-inspired French countryside beauty. Next she’s standing at the head of the partners’ table looking over a sea of white male faces to tender her resignation, effective in two weeks.
Diane is a contented woman ready for the next chapter in her life.
Interspersed with Diane’s story is that of another woman: a young redhead taking the bar exam, then sitting at her computer waiting for the results to come in. When they finally do she scrolls down to find hers: PASS. It takes a moment to register and when it does, she shrieks. Across the room a blonde woman jolts up in bed. The redhead screams that she passed, she’s a lawyer and jumps into bed with the other woman, lays on top of her and they kiss.
The next day finds her–Maia Rindell (Rose Leslie)–among a group of junior associates at Diane’s firm. She is called into Diane’s office where we discover she is Diane’s godchild. Diane immediately puts her on her final case and we are reminded subtly that connections matter.
The case is one of many going through the Chicago court system: a police beating by white officers of a young black man who was allegedly breaking into a car. We witness the beating on a videotape taken at the scene by the victim’s partner. Diane’s firm represents the City and police department, the victim’s lawyers are the largest black firm in the Midwest, Reddick, Boseman, & Kolstad. Among the attorneys for this case is Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo), who was an attorney on "The Good Wife" and who didn’t have the best relationship with Diane.
Leading the case is Adrian Boseman, played by the always-powerful Delroy Lindo. Diane and Adrian have the kind of adversarial chemistry that is indicative of the way the law has tested each–her as a woman, him as a black man.
"The Good Fight" moves along with the same effortless pacing that made "The Good Wife" work so well. There are small touches of wit and the dialogue is just as sharp, the writing equally well-crafted.
Just as it seems the big moment will center around the police brutality case, something else happens. Soon after Diane’s soignee retirement party where everyone in the legal community tells her they’d be happy to have her join their firms if she ever decided to come back to the law, police are at Maia’s parents’ house.
Henry (Paul Guilfoyle) and Lenore (Bernadette Peters) Rindell are Chicago’s unofficial First Family. Henry’s an incredibly successful financial advisor and Lenore is herself a financial whiz. The couple–and Maia–are beloved. Henry manages Diane’s money and has helped her buy into the Provence property. Diane has steered many of her colleagues–especially her feminist political friends–Henry’s way.
So when Maia’s partner, Amy Breslin ( Hélene Yorke), a states attorney, turns on the TV to see Maia’s father being taken out of the house in handcuffs, the spiral begins. Henry is Bernie Madoff if Bernie Madoff were actually a warm, loving, nice guy. He’s been running a Ponzi scheme for years and has finally been caught. Anyone who invested with him–Diane and everyone she unwittingly directed to him–has lost everything.
Diane is flat broke and what little she has may be frozen by the courts because of her connection to the Rindells. Her attorney tells her to get her job back, break the Provence agreement (which is about a million dollars), sell her apartment and everything she has and try and not lose her mind.
It’s a brilliant storyline that propels Diane, Maia and Lucca into a relationship that is bound to be both compelling and adversarial. When Diane can’t get a job because her own firm won’t take her back and the colleagues offering her work just a week before are now leery of her because of her connection to Rindell, Adrian swoops in to offer her work at his firm where she will be the only white attorney–the same position Lucca was in on "The Good Wife" as the only black attorney. Adrian has some ulterior motives–it’s not just generosity, though he does tell Diane that she will be "on the right side" of the law again, defending true victims.
Meanwhile, Maia is called to her parents’ house to sign some documents and Amy, who is fully aware as a states attorney of what is happening, steers her away. Maia’s mother–or at least her parents’ attorney–is trying to inveigle her into the crime Henry’s perpetrated. There’s a stunning moment of realization for Maia and then Amy puts her arm around her and leads her out of her parents’ house, possibly forever. The look on Maia’s face as she suddenly realizes the depth of her parents’ crime is devastating.
"The Good Fight" is serious, compelling, elegant drama. There are massive conflicts between and among the characters and without baldly stating it, we see that the main conflict for women attempting to gain power will always be with the men who have it who stand in their way. At one point Diane queries how she can have worked so hard all her life devoting herself to the law and her career and have nothing to show for it and we are reminded of how she was duped and by whom. It’s quite the metaphor.
Maia and Amy lie in bed together in a state of shock after law enforcement has come to their apartment with a warrant and searched the place.
The next day, Lucca follows Maia to the ladies room after she’s attacked by someone who has lost everything in her father’s Ponzi scheme and tells her to stop crying, that she has to not watch the news, stay strong and keep working and eventually it will get better. She’s speaking from experience, but of which experience we are unsure.
"The Good Fight" establishes strong relationships immediately. These are characters we care about. Diane may be privileged, but it’s privilege she’s worked hard for. We admire and respect her and feel for her that she trusted people who betrayed her. She’s devastated by her unwitting involvement in destroying other people’s lives as well as her own and that she has no way to compensate them. An attorney friend tells her that the Chicago women’s political group lost $800,000–all they had–predicated on her advice to invest with Rindell.
Maia, played with earnest believability by Scottish actress Rose Leslie of "Game of Thrones" and "Downton Abbey," is a realistic lesbian in a TV landscape filled with unrealistic lesbian relationships. Will she be able to hold onto Amy through the legal mayhem of her father’s impending trial? As the couple lays in bed together, it’s difficult to know if their relationship can withstand an external blow of such magnitude.
Maia is fired from her job. TMZ puts up a sex tape purportedly of the two women. Amy says, it’s not even the two of them–she doesn’t have that tattoo. A now-penniless child of privilege she didn’t even realize she had, Maia doesn’t know what will happen to her.
"The Good Fight" has everything you want in a drama: a stellar cast, sharp. smart, fast-paced writing, strong plotlines. Diane will face a new battle as she enters Reddick, Boseman, & Kolstad, bringing Maia along with her. Barbara Kolstad (Erika Tazel) is not keen on adding white women to the staff–particularly not Diane as a partner–and has an argument with Adrian about his unilateral decision to hire Diane. She grills Lucca about how Diane is to work with and for and Lucca gives a surprising answer.
"The Good Fight" proffers seasoned actors in Baranski and Lindo who are huge on the screen, particularly when they are together. Jumbo, Leslie and Tazel ("Justified") invest their characters with both strength and vulnerability and Jumbo, who was very very good in "The Good Wife" is an actor who always seems to have another layer to her that demands we keep watching to see if it’s revealed.
This is a drama about law and politics, but it is fundamentally about women. It’s about how gender, race and sexual orientation impact the lives of women trying to work in what often still looks and feels like–with the most unqualified man ever to run for president besting the most qualified person who also happened to be a woman–a medieval patriarchy.
CBS All Access is streaming and available online. You can watch the premiere for free at CBS.com. We guarantee you’ll want to see the other nine episodes of this season after that.
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Scripps-Howard Award, RFK Award and the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and A Room of Her Own, senior politics reporter and contributing editor for Curve magazine, contributing editor for Lambda Literary Review and a columnist for San Francisco Bay Area Reporter. Her reporting and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Nation, Ms Magazine, Diva and Slate. Her book, Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic won the Lambda Literary Award, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural & historical fiction. Her new novel, Ordinary Mayhem, won the IPPY Award for fiction and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Mystery. Her book Erasure: Silencing Lesbians and her next novel, Sleep So Deep, will both be published in fall 2017. @VABVOX