Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Legal (and Moral) Battles Continue: The Good Fight

Delroy Lindo and Cush Jumbo in CBS's The Good Fight. (Photo: IMDB)

Note: This piece contains spoilers.

As we await the start of a new network fall season, it’s becoming clearer and clearer how entrenched the old school, non-cable channels have become. More doctor and cop shows (New Amsterdam, The Rookie) and reboots and updates of previous series (Magnum, P.I., Murphy Brown) are on the agenda and very few, if any, groundbreaking shows seem to be on the network horizon. In fact, except for the short-lived (one-season) Fox comedy The Grinder, my favourite network series have been the same for four seasons now. (They are ABC’s black-ish and How to Get Away with Murder and CBS’s Elementary). But this doesn’t mean that cable shows, despite freer use of explicit language, sex and violence, are necessarily better. I don’t, for example, get all the acclaim for BBC America’s Killing Eve, whose first eight-episode season centered around an MI–5 agent (Sandra Oh) hunting down a female assassin all over Europe. Oh is wonderful in the role but I don’t buy the series’ plotting and it comes perilously close to exaggerated theatrics even though it’s not trying to be satirical. FX’s Pose, which chronicles the intersection of big business and the Harlem drag-ball scene in New York City in the late eighties, boasted a large cast of (many) transsexual actors in key roles but dramatically was more than a little slack and nearly undone by the one-note performance of Evan Peters as a ‘straight’ man intrigued by one of the girls. Both those series got more ink and acclaim than comparatively better shows on cable, like The Good Fight, the nominal sequel to CBS’s The Good Wife, which turns out to be one of TV’s best current efforts.

I must admit I was reticent at first to watch the show, which has been on for two seasons now and been renewed for a third season for next spring, mainly because I never saw the point of a sequel to The Good Wife, which, to my mind, was for its seven-season run, the finest network show on the air. (It was a bit wobbly in its final season but quickly righted itself. And it ended on a satisfactory and not overdone final note, which simply left the characters continuing their lives without feeling the need to wrap everything up in one great big bow.) Yet The Good Fight, which brings significant regular and supporting characters from that series over to this one, manages to be fresh, funny and gripping in ways that differ from its nominal predecessor. It’s also very relevant to what’s going on in Trump’s divided America.

In fact, the show, credited to The Good Wife creators, Robert and Michelle King, as well as Phil Alden Robinson, begins with the shock of Donald Trump’s election, which impacts spectacularly on liberal Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski). If that isn’t enough, she then finds out that her entire nest egg, meant for a retirement villa in Provence, has been stolen from her in a Bernie Madoff-type swindle, perpetrated by her old friend, Harry Rindell (Paul Guilfoyle), whose daughter Maia (Rose Leslie) just happens to be her goddaughter. Soon forced out of her law firm from The Good Wife, as she doesn’t have enough money to stay on as partner, she, with Maia in tow, ends up at another established Chicago firm, Reddick, Boseman, & Kolstad, a largely African American–owned venue. Eventually it morphs into Reddick, Boseman and Lockhart, after Diane is brought on as name partner, mainly because senior partner Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo) wants a white partner to attract new clients his firm otherwise could not accesss. Also along for the ride, and brought over from The Good Wife, are associate Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo) and political fixer Eli Gold’s irrepressible daughter Marissa Gold (Sarah Steele), who begins as Diane’s assistant but soon comes into her own as an investigator for the firm, alongside Jay DiPersia (Nyambi Nyambi). African American Trump supporter Julius Cain (Michael Boatman) also pops up at Boseman and Associates.

Nyambi Nyambi, Christine Baranski, and Rose Leslie. (Photo: IMDB)

The reality that Reddick, Boseman and Lockhart is mostly African American in composition provides a different dramatic palette to the show compared to The Good Wife, because the deep concerns of the firm lean towards issues confronting the African American community in Chicago, namely racism and police brutality. It also ensures that The Good Fight is thus not a clone of The Good Wife but something original.

If there was a weakness to the show’s first season, which was the first scripted series to air on CBS’s streaming service CBS All Access (also broadcaster of Star Trek: Discovery; CBS also telecast The Good Wife), it was the centering of Maia Rindell in the series’ action as she tried to navigate her knowledge of her father’s perfidy with the media microscope analyzing her every move and even questioning whether she was party to her dad’s and possibly her mom’s (Bernadette Peters) involvement in the family’s financial crimes. Simply put, Leslie (Game of Thrones) offered up a dull performance as The Good Fight’s least interesting character, even though making her a lesbian was a bold step. I suspect the show’s creators recognized the pallid nature of Leslie’s work as she’s been relegated, mostly, to the back burner of season two, which concentrates more on Lucca’s pregnancy by estranged boyfriend and opposition lawyer Colin Morrello (Justin Bartha) and the fractured but compelling relationship of Diane and her husband Kurt McVeigh (Gary Cole). They’re one of the most riveting couples on TV, as Diane, who thought she’d soon be divorcing Kurt because of his infidelity (revealed in the last season of The Good Wife), now needs him more than ever, since he seems an oasis of stability and sanity in a world preoccupied with instability and insanity, personified by what Trump has come to represent in the U.S. (The mainly political differences between Diane and Kurt -- he’s right-wing, albeit not a Trump fan -- matter less in The Good Fight. And Kurt’s character is not burdened with the whiff of condescension that accrued to him in The Good Wife, another example of liberal Hollywood not quite getting conservative points of view.) Christine Baranski, always so good in The Good Wife, is being stretched even further in this show and she aces every scene she is in. I used to know her most for her comedic acting – notably on TV’s Cybill – which she still displays in her infrequent but amusing appearances on The Big Bang Theory as Leonard’s judgmental, disapproving mother. But the two dramatic shows have cemented her as a performer with immense gravitas who can also let her hair down, as she when she wryly remarks on how insane the times are. (That’s as good a descriptor as any to apply to America today.) It’s a terrific combination. Lucca and Colin’s adversarial and enjoyable relationship, meanwhile, has the welcome feel of screwball comedy to it, as when they face off in court or when they have to deal with Colin’s ditzy and overbearing mother Francesca (a very funny Andrea Martin). There’s also an interesting, prickly dynamic between Diane and the firm’s latest partner, Liz Lawrence (Audra McDonald), who’s come over from the Department of Justice. Diane sees her as the enemy and feels forced to compete with her for Adrian’s attention -- not incidentally, as Liz is his ex-wife and is now married to a cop, another profession inimical to Diane’s world view. These two strong women butting heads certainly makes for powerful drama and help elevate season two of The Good Fight to new heights. I do wish that Erica Tazel as Barbara Kolstad, Boseman’s first African female partner, had stayed with the show – she left at the beginning of season two in the wake of Liz Lawrence’s arrival – but substituting one talented actress and good character for another certainly didn’t hurt the show any. As Boseman, Delroy Lindo, a self-effacing and often underrated actor (Bright Angel, Wondrous Oblivion), is a key asset on The Good Fight, portraying an affable chap who commands great loyalty from his staff and co-workers but you cross him at your peril. He's also old-school enough that he doesn’t get the nascent #metoo movement, which gets him into some trouble when a former female student calls him on his sexism and other biases. Alan Alda (TV’s M*A*S*H) as duplicitous lawyer Solomon Waltzer and Tim Matheson (Animal House) as Tully, a reckless left-wing protester who becomes involved with Diane, are among the more arresting recurring characters on the show.

The show’s second season started off with (a literal) bang as a Chicago lawyer, the first of several, was murdered, suggesting that it is open season on hunting down lawyers, with the attendant jokes and barbs about killing all the lawyers coming fast and furious and aptly reflecting the nastiness and meanness now infesting the country. Those killings are also a good metaphor for the theme of insane times that Diane, who may be developing an opioid addiction, is experiencing. Fake news abounds on the background TV screens – stories that sound real but aren’t in our world – but unlike Trump’s narcissistic, intolerant diatribes they are meant to illuminate what is actually going on in the American arena as genuine and false intermix to a confusing degree, depending on who’s watching or paying attention. And there’s’ a provocative examination of the infamous, rumoured ‘pee’ tape, ostensibly displaying the American President in offbeat sex acts with Russian hookers, that showcases democratic operative Ruth Eastman (Margo Martindale), first introduced in the last season of The Good Wife, who manipulates Boseman and Associates for her own and the party’s ends. These Democrats are not going to go high as Michelle Obama said they would, a political action which may, of course, be necessary if the Democrats are to win in 2020. Unlike The Good Wife, The Good Fight is just a wee bit more critical of and cynical about the ‘good’ mainstream political party. There is one newly appointed judge, the clueless Judge Trig Mullaney [Rob McClure], who is a stand-in for all the many unqualified people Trump is appointing to any number of offices in the U.S.) Incidentally, the final scene of the last episode of season two, where the TV news broadcasts a report of a reporter being murdered, suggests a more direct attack on the harm that Donald Trump has wrought with his continuous attacks on the press as ‘the enemy of the people.’ It should ratchet up the drama of season three if it’s played out plot-wise and also remind us that the show began with the calamity of the unlikely Trump being elected to the highest office of his land.

Delroy Lindo and Audra McDonald. (Photo: IMDB)

I think the importing of some of the better characters from The Good Wife adds a lot of value to The Good Fight's mix. And not the obvious choices either  that show’s lead actress Juliana Margulies (the good wife herself, Alicia Florrick) has barely merited a mention on The Good Fight – but some of the best supporting ones, notably eccentric lawyer Elsbeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston), kinky suspected serial killer Colin Sweeney (Dylan Baker), sleazy lawyer Charles Lester (Wallace Shawn) and his scary client, drug dealer Lemond Bishop (Mike Colter). (I'm hoping Michael J. Fox's crafty lawyer Louis Canning will make an appearance in season three.) We also get the usual coterie of cranky judges who graced the benches of The Good Wife. But notably, except for biracial Lucca and Julius, the key African American characters, Adrian, Liz, Jay, are all new to The Good Fight, an indication of how comparatively white The Good Wife was, despite the riveting presence of Kalinda Sharman (Archie Panjabi). (The Good Fight’s cast is about half black.) That doesn’t make The Good Fight better than The Good Wife, and they’re more different than similar, I’d venture, but it does make it more unusual. The Good Fight is, in other ways, oddly enough, more conventional in its lessening of the use of social media as another feature commenting on what’s going on in the protagonist’s world and filtering it through her perceptions. The drama is more straight-ahead in The Good Fight while also taking advantage of the liberal use of language, in particular, that cable allows. In one brilliant bit, Diane’s swearing up a storm – she uses the word "fuck"  numerous times in one episode – is explained away as her liberation after seven years (on The Good Wife) of having to watch her language. (It certainly was startling for me to hear her swear on TV but Star Trek: Discovery’s use of four-letter words was even more jarring.) And the show’s storylines, while not as much in thrall to a ‘ripped from the headlines’ motif as The Good Wife, are, perhaps, a bit tougher in their impact, probably because of its more demonstrably inner-city concerns.

I wouldn’t consider The Good Fight to be quite as incendiary as its opening credits, which blow up everything, from law books, scales of justice and TV screens showing Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin – though there is one shocker in season two that I certainly didn’t see coming. But it is consistently, dramatically strong and real, qualities in short supply still on TV. It’s one show that, amid the myriad attention paid to the unprecedented avalanche of scripted TV, network or cable, out there, deserves more love than it’s gotten from fans and reviewers so far. To utilize an old-fashioned term, it really is must-see TV.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches film at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute where he will be teaching two courses this fall, Altering Realities: As Society Evolves, So Do the Movies and American Cinema of the 70s: The Last Golden Age.

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