Friday, February 17, 2017

TV REVIEW: CBS All Access' 'The Good Fight'

CBS All Access will launch its first ever original scripted drama The Good Fight on Sunday, February 19 at 8/7c. with a simulcast on CBS. The drama stars Christine Baranski, Cush Jumbo, Rose Leslie, Sarah Steele, Erica Tazel, Justin Bartha and Delroy Lindo.

Read on for my thoughts on the spinoff of The Good Wife after screening its first two episodes.

For seven seasons, Robert and Michelle King created such an interesting and unique world for CBS on The Good Wife. It was a smart legal drama with its pulse on what was happening in the real world. It took inspiration from a number of very complicated stories. It started with a political sex scandal. But it also found time to analyze technology's impact on the world and the law, what it means to want power and the scandalous behind-the-scenes workings of the law and politics. The drama also had such a strong, central focus with Julianna Margulies' Alicia Florrick. It was her story. The seven seasons tracked her evolution from a meek housewife rocked by scandal to a woman capable of manipulating her friends to keep her husband in power. It was a journey with many ups and downs. The last two seasons lost the thread with the main story most of the time. But it was a fascinating journey nevertheless. The Kings ended the show fully confident that they had completed a full story. The ending didn't totally work. But the show was still doing interesting things and covering interesting topics to the end of its run. And now, this universe is once again the focus of a new series. The Good Fight spins off a couple of characters to continue providing insight into this world and providing commentary on ever-changing and chaotic real-life issues. A lot of parallels can be drawn between the two shows (especially since the Kings have returned as showrunners) but these opening episodes do some great things to make The Good Fight stand out on its own.

Perhaps the most important difference between The Good Wife and The Good Fight is that the spinoff centers on three woman. It essentially has three lead characters. The Good Wife gave plenty of time to characters besides Alicia but it was still fundamentally her show. She was the leading woman and everyone else was supporting. On The Good Fight though, the action once again includes a major scandal but this time it has far-reaching implications on a number of characters. The sex scandal of the Florricks had major consequences for the citizens of Chicago as they had to remove a corrupt city official. But it was mostly a story that changed that particular family. On The Good Fight, the inciting event is the FBI bust of a major Ponzi scheme. Its exposure means some people no longer have their savings or retirement funds. So now, there are so many people starting over. So, that's a fascinating new worldview for this universe. It has the possibility to connect more people to tragedy. But it also showcases just how devastating and cruel this world can continue to be even when these people think they've hit their lowest points.

Christine Baranski reprises her role as Diane Lockhart. In the first episode, she is the lead character now. That opening hour is a fantastic showcase for her. This has always been a terrific role for her. She always deserved to get nominated for Emmy - which she did six times but never won. And now, she is given such a weighty story to really sink her teeth into. Her friends were behind the Ponzi scheme. She had her retirement fund invested with them. She was about to retire and live a life of luxury. She had made it to the top. She was running one of the largest law firms in Chicago. She built that over the last year. And now, she can no longer retire and is forced out of her own firm. She's the one who hits rock bottom. The only job she can find is as a junior partner at a largely African American firm - managed by new characters Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo) and Barbara Kolstad (Erica Tazel). That inherently creates an interesting power dynamic. The Good Wife was all about power plays and scheming for control of the firm. In the later years, it seemed like things were in a constant state of change. But now, Diane has to start all over. These new characters don't want her changing the business environment they've made. They want her to be a part of the team. And yet, that will open a new conversation on race and class that should be fascinating to watch play out over the season. Race was never something The Good Wife did well. In fact, a number of black characters were introduced and then just disappeared completely (Taye Diggs, Michael Boatman, Michael Ealy, Nikki M. James). But Adrian and Barbara are important and will have big moments with Diane - like what happens when she hires a white assistant who seems less capable for the job than the black applicants.

Cush Jumbo's Lucca Quinn is another major character from The Good Wife to make the transition to the new show. She has found her way to the firm run by Adrian and Barbara as well. She was only on the original show for the final season. Most of that time she was just a sounding board for Alicia. Seriously, in those last few episodes, all Lucca did was obsess over Alicia and Jason's relationship. And now, she has the potential to be defined by her own goals and ambitions in life. That's fascinating. She's obviously a character the Kings wanted to do more with. Plus, she provides an interesting perspective on things. She's not touched by the Ponzi scheme at all but her reaction to it touches some of the other characters. Jumbo continues to be such an intriguing performer. She has strong screen presence. She can be assertive when the character and story needs her to be. And yet, there is a mystery to her as well. One where the audience can never totally be sure how she'll react. She does have an awkward history with Diane. That comes into play. But Lucca's handling of that may surprise the audience as well. She's one of the three leads of the show but is still a little bit of a supporting player in the first two episodes. Other stories take priority over her. However, it seems likely she'll have more to do later on in the season.

And finally, the third lead is a new character, Maia Rindell, who is played by Rose Leslie. Maia is a brand new lawyer who has just passed the bar. She's excited to be working at a firm. But she also happens to be the daughter of Henry and Lenore Rindell, who were in charge of the Ponzi scheme. So, her life is completely uprooted before her career is ever able to begin. Before she is able to prove herself as a lawyer, people are already judging her on the actions of her parents. She's similar to Alicia at the start of The Good Wife in a number of ways. She is completely shocked by this scandal but has to find a way forward. She does that by following Diane to this new firm and throwing herself into work. But Maia is also a great introduction to this world because she also has a serious girlfriend. LGBT themes were a part of The Good Wife. However, most of that came from Archie Panjabi's Kalinda who the Kings always wanted to be mysterious which after awhile created a divide with the audience. Here, the show openly embraces a lesbian couple. It makes them have successes and flaws just like any regular couple. Their relationship is put under a microscope because of scandal. They'll need to find a way to harden themselves in order to survive this. That evolution should be a fascinating central focus and dilemma for Maia across the series.

These opening two episodes are really strong. However, the biggest uncertainty of The Good Fight may be the fact it's airing on CBS All Access. It is the first original scripted drama on the new streaming platform. It's smart of CBS to try to boost the subscription numbers by making shows with direct connections to known hits. The Good Fight can appeal to the audience of The Good Wife and the prestige from the awards circuit. Meanwhile, Star Trek: Discovery will hopefully tap into that popular sci-fi audience. But will viewers pay for yet another streaming service? If the content is good, the theory is yes audiences will come. The Good Fight is good and worth people seeking out. But will it be enough to justify getting the whole service? That's up for debate. Once more content is on the platform, it will be easier to make that decision. But right now, it's a huge ask for fans of the show. Being on streaming means the episodes can go longer and the characters can swear. It is pretty magnificent seeing Diane Lockhart say "Fuck!" That made me giddy every time it happened. But it's still a risky experiment for CBS. One that may or may not pay off. Only time will tell. The quality is there to justify the buy. It's just up to the audience to decide.