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It came as something of a surprise to me, but it turns out that I missed The Good Wife.
Though there was some limited rending of garments from the critical side of the aisle when The Good Wife concluded its seven-season run last May, it felt like the time was right. Focused on Alicia Florrick, The Good Wife had tied itself into knots and those knots had backed themselves into corners. It was time to move on.
Air date: Feb 19, 2017
It took only a few minutes in the first episode of The Good Fight, which will premiere on CBS on February 19 and will then continue on CBS All Access, for a feeling of satisfied comfort to set in.
It isn’t that absence made my heart grow fonder for Alicia’s various ethical, legal and romantic complications. Alicia Florrick and Julianna Margulies are nowhere to be seen, though her name is mentioned in passing in both episodes sent to critics. I didn’t even necessarily miss the parts of The Good Wife that carry over into the spinoff, including Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockhart, Cush Jumbo’s Lucca Quinn and Sarah Steele’s Marissa Gold.
What I missed, simply, is how above-average The Good Wife was on so many levels and how there are basically no shows currently on broadcast TV that have risen to inherit its mantle. The Good Wife was an above-average procedural, regularly delivering legal cases that were entertaining and nuanced. The Good Wife was way above average as a character-based drama, building a universe of recurring players that could filter through a spinoff for years. It was smarter than average and funnier than average and, when it chose to be, it landed emotional punches at an above-average rate. Ongoing storytelling wasn’t always what The Good Wife did best, but if you look at ostensible intended network heirs like Doubt or Conviction, it’s clear that The Good Wife was above average when it came to hybrid arcing as well.
Through two episodes, The Good Fight feels appropriately like an extension on the brand and unless you discover that what you really liked about The Good Wife was the soap opera of Alicia Florrick’s life, you’ll find this a welcome return.
For me, The Good Fight didn’t suffer at all for Alicia’s absence and, written by Robert King, Michelle King and Phil Alden Robinson, the pilot attempts to offer a proxy narrative of legal redemption. Instead of Alicia entering law practice after the disgrace of her husband’s infidelity, we meet Maia Rindell (Rose Leslie), daughter of Chicago financial royalty. Maia is about to start her legal career mentored by her godmother Diane (Baranski, still), but her father’s business improprieties are about to sully her name and force Maia and a newly cash-strapped Diane to reevaluate their professional futures.
Lucca (Jumbo, still) has gone to work for Chicago’s leading African-American law firm, fronted by the flamboyant Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo) and Adrian is going to become either an adversary or an unlikely lifeboat for Diane and Maia.
The premiere is about bringing in Maia as a new co-lead and also shifting our workplace from The Good Wife to The Good Fight and those steps require a fair amount of exposition and they also mean that it’s probably possible to join The Good Fight from scratch, if you wanted to. It’s the quantity of heavy lifting that made me tremendously grateful for Baranski, who really nails every beat, whether it’s the sad sincerity of her strained marriage to Gary Cole’s Kurt or the indignation of her clashes with Zach Grenier’s still perfectly snakelike David Lee. Seeing Diane try to hold onto her patrician dignity despite being laid low is a good hook for a spinoff. Reintroducing Diane staring shellshocked at Donald Trump’s inauguration proves a pointed way to illustrate that this woman’s foundation has crumbled and it’s time for her to find something new, while also using her as a foundation for a new TV series. Diane’s strain is so extreme that her newfound ability to swear thanks CBS All Access is straight-up cathartic.
For some fans, Jumbo was an immediate favorite on The Good Wife, but I could never get past how obvious it was that they were using Lucca to cover for the fiasco of Kalinda’s ugly departure. Without the need to be Alicia’s artificially injected best bud, Lucca immediately gets to establish a feisty identity of her own and Jumbo thrives. It also helps that my biggest problem with Jumbo’s performance, a wobbly American accent, looks much better next to Leslie’s own accent inconsistencies and that Leslie’s accent feels mitigated by a character who is presented as meek and uncertain and is well played as such. The other major new addition in the premiere is Lindo, who plays well-dressed, silver-tongued cockiness to perfection.
The second episode settles the show quickly into its new rhythms, which feel a lot like the old rhythms, right down to the urgent string accompaniment of the score. Adrian’s firm comes with personnel clashes, including Erica Tazel as a partner who disagrees with some key decisions, and the concept of “litigation financiers,” bean counters who do cost-benefit analysis on every new case and who feel like something the Kings would have introduced on The Good Wife if they’d had the chance. The second episode uses that favorite Good Wife trope of plunking the characters down in an alternative system of adjudication in which the normal courtroom rules don’t apply and also brings back Denis O’Hare’s Judge Abernathy, presumably the first of many quirky returning judges. And even without Alan Cumming’s Eli, Steele’s Marissa remains hilariously resourceful and energetic.
If the first episode was a little overlit, busy and heavy on deck-shuffling, the second episode looks and feels like it takes place within the same world as its Emmy-winning predecessor. It’s got above-average brains, structure and humor, the kind of strong mainstream network drama that’s always welcome, only with cursing. The Kings always had more than just plot on their minds and the Good Fight milieu should offer fresh racial and economic points of discussion.
The evaluation that The Good Fight is quite satisfying raises a question that’s harder to answer. It’s nice that The Good Fight doesn’t feel diminished in its streaming home, but the thing it doesn’t feel diminished from is a network show that gave audiences 22 episodes per year for free. CBS All Access is $5.99 and what it offers is a semi-random library of archive titles, plus streaming for a lot of new stuff that CBS has made conspicuously difficult to access basically to drive people to this new platform. At one point, it looks like the new Star Trek spinoff would be joining CBS All Access at roughly the same time and then you could figure that at least you were getting two original shows as an incentive to subscribe. At least in the short term, paying for CBS All Access is paying for The Good Fight and a lot of repeats, all with commercials unless you go up to the ad-free version. That’s much less content, both original and library, than you get on Hulu or Netflix, and whether it’s part of cord-cutting or just as an extra supplemental add-on, it’s all just another monthly charge.
Again, the business model used to be that CBS was giving this show to viewers for free, but The Good Wife took nine months off, became a slightly different show, and now it costs money to watch. Instead, what CBS is giving viewers for free on broadcast is Pure Genius and Doubt and Training Day and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders.
The precedent causes me to scratch my head, knowing that my job here is really just to rule on The Good Fight. With its very promising first two episodes and return of some of the more beloved characters on TV, I recommend the show itself. I still haven’t decided whether having missed this particular above-average TV voice, in a landscape that really doesn’t lack for above-average programming, is worth my own additional outlay.
Network: CBS All Access
Cast: Christine Baranski, Cush Jumbo, Rose Leslie, Delroy Lindo, Sarah Steele, Erica Tazel, Justin Bartha.
Creators: Robert King & Michelle King & Phil Alden Robinson
Showrunners: Robert King & Michelle King
Episodes premiere Sundays on CBS All Access. The premiere will get a special airing on Sunday, February 19 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.
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