'Good Fight': "Trumpian Universe" and CBS All Access Push 'Good Wife' Spinoff Into New Territory

Creators Robert and Michelle King, along with star Christine Baranski, discuss the notable differences on the CBS All Access drama and telling a story in the "Trumpian universe."
Patrick Harbron/CBS
'The Good Fight'

When Christine Baranski had to prepare for a few particularly emotional scenes on the set of the Good Wife spinoff pilot The Good Fight, she didn’t have to look far for inspiration.

"We were in the middle of shooting all the emotional material the day before, the day of the election and several days after the election, and I was playing a character who was going through turmoil, a personal catastrophe. So that, combined with coming home and watching news coverage — the whole thing was just so emotionally fraught," the actress tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Many people were quite traumatized from the election results, and to be shooting that particular episode was almost uncanny."

It was a strangely befitting coincidence given the original series' embrace of politics. Although a legal procedural by design, the show featured cameos by real-life political figures like Donna Brazile and Mike Bloomberg as well as political storylines such as Alicia's season-six run for office and her husband's presidential campaign in the show's final year.

The Good Fight picks up one year after the events of the Good Wife finale, in which Diane (Baranski) memorably slapped Alicia (Julianna Margulies) after the latter exposed the former's cheating husband in court. In the new offshoot, Diane's world again is thrown upside down when she discovers she's lost all of her money to a Ponzi scheme and must start anew.

The spinoff comes less than a year after The Good Wife signed off last May and marks the first original scripted series for streamer CBS All Access as its parent company looks to compete with Netflix and Amazon. Throughout its seven seasons, Good Wife proved to be an important prestige entry for CBS — and one of the few remaining broadcast dramas able to hold its own during awards season against big-budget competition like Game of Thrones and Mad Men. During its run, the legal drama amassed five Emmys, two SAG Awards, two AFI Awards, a Peabody and a Golden Globe, in addition to drawing a modest but loyal following.

"In that seventh season, there was just this sense of: Why are we breaking this up?" says Robert King, who serves as co-creator and co-showrunner with wife Michelle King. So much so that longtime executive producers David W. Zucker and Brooke Kennedy approached the Kings about a spinoff for CBS. "We said, 'Yeah, as long as we're not involved,'" he recalls.

By that point, the Kings were wary to commit to a 22-episode season that is still the norm on the Big Four networks. And the two were already busy with their own follow-up project, the political satire BrainDead, which went straight-to-series for a 13-episode summer run on CBS.

However, when CBS Studios expressed interest in putting the spinoff on the company's new digital streamer, "that got very intriguing," Robert says.

That also got the attention of Baranski, as well as new season-seven addition Cush Jumbo, who signed on to reprise their roles. "I decided to take a chance, even though there was no script, there wasn’t even an idea," Baranski recalls. "I'm delighted to do 10 episodes and not 22. It allows you the chance to do other things as an actor."

With two familiar faces attached, the spinoff received a straight-to-series order in May. The Kings agreed to co-write the first episode with Field of Dreams scribe Phil Alden Robinson, who had directed several season-seven episodes of Good Wife. However, with Robinson already committed to a Showtime limited series about the Cuban missile crisis, it remained unclear who would take the reins as showrunner.

"There was a concern for me because I really did want the Kings to be fully engaged in it. It's pretty much why I agreed to do it," Baranski says. "It was sort of ambiguous what their involvement would be."

Originally set to debut in the spring, Good Fight's launch was then moved up to February just as CBS All Access delayed its other original scripted endeavor, the high-profile Star Trek reboot. It was then that the Kings came onboard as showrunners just as BrainDead's first season wrapped. (It was quietly canceled a month later.)

"If we had Star Trek's budget, I would feel better," Robert jokes about being CBS All Access' first scripted series. "Can I say this? I don't know what they consider a success in streaming. If you're the creator of a show or you're running a show, it's always the question of, are they going to give you a second year? I don't know what success is, so I'm a little nervous that we're the first one out."

However, the Kings have also embraced their new non-network home. In addition to a significantly shorter season order, the Kings say episodes will be more "cinematic" and will vary in length, normally running around 52 minutes instead of the strict 42-minute network standard. "The other thing different is a certain frankness about sex, which allows us to do things that we wouldn’t have before," Robert says.

And then there's more colorful language allowed online, as evidence in the NSFW full-length trailer for The Good Fight released last month. "Despite the fact that Diane is an elegant, well-educated, very lady-like person as viewers know her, there are times in private, particularly when you find out you've lost all of your money, where the f-word is the only possible thing that will make you feel better," Baranski says with a laugh of Diane's new financial standing.

The Ponzi scheme that claims her life savings also ruins the reputation of her goddaughter, a young lawyer named Maia (Rose Leslie). "If one were to ask Diane what was the worst day of her life, she would say it was when Will was shot," Michelle says. "But the second worst day is this one where everything she has worked for has been taken away from her. We've really never seen her have to go through something like this."

Much like Alicia at the beginning of the original series, "it was very important to make Diane an underdog," Robert explains.

Already having left her old firm, Diane, along with Maia, moves to a surprising new home: an all-African-American firm led by Delroy Lindo (The Cider House Rules) and Erica Tazel (Justified). Although the original pitch was for Diane to move to a Silicon Valley-type firm, the husband-and-wife showrunner team eventually decided on the former strategy instead. "It's something we haven’t seen before," Michelle says. "It was how to put her in a truly different world."

Although it's a new world for Baranski's Diane, viewers will see many familiar faces return, including Carrie Preston, Matthew Perry, John Benjamin Hickey, Rita Wilson, Denis O'Hare and Jane Alexander. "Because it's set in our fictional Chicago, we're trying to play the reality of the world," Michelle says. "Sometimes you meet a new judge, sometimes you meet a judge you've seen before."

At her new firm, Diane is reunited with her former colleague, and Alicia's former BFF, Lucca Quinn (Jumbo). "The biggest dynamic is these two don't like each other. And so to see whether they can work past that is interesting," Robert says. Michelle explains: "It explores the difference between like and respect in a professional relationship because there's clearly respect there but we don't start with affection."

Diane's new law firm has also given the Kings a way into racial politics. "What happens when there's a shooting with Black Lives Matter? I can even feel it in our writers room, which has some African-American writers," Robert says. "I thought it was interesting to see Diane, who's this dyed-in-the-wool liberal — how does that work with her in a firm where people may not even be liberal, who may be very conservative?"

As a lifelong liberal — the pilot of The Good Wife showed Diane in a photo with now-former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton — The Good Fight will also tackle the Trump administration head-on. Although the original script opened with Diane looking at retirement homes in Provence, the series now opens with a speechless Diane watching Donald Trump's inauguration.

"Then it becomes a different headset when she goes to the south of France," Baranski says with a laugh. "It's to get away from her country."

Since Diane's plans to escape a Trump reign are thwarted in the pilot by her lack of funds, the show will tackle subsequent issues that come from his presidency. "With Trump, to us, it's more about the change in culture," Robert says, who points to specific topics like fake news and the rise of the alt-right movement. "It's been hard only to do this because you don't know whether the thing you're breaking now will be old news by the time we show the show."

Baranski herself is confident in the Kings' ability to tackle the Trump administration.

"It's going to be very exciting to write and act these episodes and put these characters in what I call this 'Trumpian universe,'" she says. "Where the country is is so fraught and so interesting that I'd rather be with the Kings than anybody else. They might be able to capture what's going on in a way that will actually make a contribution."

The Good Fight premieres Sunday on CBS All Access, with a special preview at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.