The Good Fight, Robert and Michelle King’s spinoff of The Good Wife, stars Christine Baranski, Rose Leslie, and Cush Jumbo as three women working at a Chicago law firm. The show’s predecessor was a critically acclaimed drama with a similar setting. Can the spinoff live up to its example (and draw enough of an audience to persuade people to sign up for CBS: All Access)?
[Warning: Spoilers follow.]
The pilot opens with liberal-yet-top-of-the-corporate-ladder lawyer Diane Lockhart watching in disbelief as Donald Trump is sworn in. She responds to this travesty by deciding to retire to Provence. David Lee and Howard Lyman, with whom she still works (at a law firm which, true to the traditions of The Good Wife, has already changed names and merged multiple times since last spring), are DELIGHTED by this.
Her god-daughter, Maia Rindell, has joined the firm as a first-year associate (though the senile Howard Lyman is convinced she’s the florist). Being the god-daughter of a name partner has its perks; she’s pulled off the grunt work the other first-year associates are doing and onto a case where Diane is defending the city of Chicago against a police brutality case. Maia isn’t sure they’re exactly on the right side here, but Diane advises her not to jump to conclusions. She says people she’s thought were guilty turned out to be innocent and “People who I thought were saints… they weren’t.” You gotta admit it’s an unusual way to shoutout to the main character of your parent show—Alicia Florrick. Speaking of Alicia, we don’t really find out what’s happened to her, but her former partner, Lucca Quinn, has joined the black-led firm that is representing Diane’s opponent. Anyway, after viewing footage of the arrest, Maia comes up with a classic TV-lawyer epiphany: her parents just happen to have the same car as one of the cars that was near the incident, so she knows that they have perimeter cameras that record uneraseable footage. This leads near the end of the episode to the discovery that the police attacks were entirely unprovoked, and a six-million-dollar payout from the city.
Maia’s parents, close friends of Diane’s, run an investment fund. They attend Diane’s retirement party, where Will Gardner, Diane’s old partner who was killed in dramatic fashion in the middle of The Good Wife’s run, gets a much more positive shoutout, a sweet old picture of him and Diane during the slideshow. When Diane asks why they’ve been delaying withdrawing her money to buy the house in Provence, the Rindells nervously suggest that she borrow against it instead, a scene that raises glaring red flags of foreshadowing. Sure enough, soon Maia’s father is arrested in dramatic fashion and implicated in a giant Ponzi scheme, leaving Diane broke and in danger of having her accounts frozen. Her accountant, played by Anthony Rapp (perhaps best known to my fellow nineties children as Mark from Rent), advises to finalize her separation from her cheating husband Kurt with a divorce so his accounts won’t be frozen either—and to delay her retirement.
Maia and her girlfriend Amy, also a lawyer, visit her mother—Lenore Rindell, played by Bernadette Peters with an odd, pursed-mouth, mincing mannerism—and find out that Maia’s uncle Jacks, who was in charge of the actual trading at the fund, has made a deal with the Feds. Amy realize sthat her lawyer, who’s trying to get Maia to back-sign some papers, can’t also be Maia’s lawyer. They leave, though Maia seems to genuinely believe that her mother isn’t trying to screw her over.
Diane asks her firm to delay her retirement, but the slimeballs she works with are all too happy to have her out on her butt so they get more money. Meanwhile, all the people who once would have been happy to hire Diane suddenly don’t want to, because she’s been directing people to the Rindell fund for years and is the reason why many of her own favorite nonprofits have lost money, as well as many of her old friends. As one of her friends finally explains to her, she’s “poison.” Kurt, at least, remains on Diane’s side; he visits her in an intensely emotional scene where Diane, who’s maintained her composure in front of everyone else, finally breaks down. He doesn’t want them to get divorced, though she insists that the door is closed between them since he had an affair (which was revealed in the very last moments of The Good Wife finale).
Finally, the head of the black-led opposing firm on Diane’s last case, Robert Boseman, offers Diane a partnership at his firm, Reddick Boseman & Kolstad. He says she’s not poison in his circles because black people were never invited to the invite-only hedge fund that turned out to be a Ponzi scheme. Maia, too, is having her life devoured by the scandal. The show makes good use of the fact that it is not subject to network decency guidelines by showing the deluge of sexually explicit, violent threats that come to Maia’s phone and even come out of the mouths of people she runs into in person. Lucca defends her against one of these, though they’re on the opposite side, and follows Maia into the bathroom to pass on Alicia’s advice on how to get through a scandal. Eventually she is walked out of the firm, which fires first-year associates willy-nilly. But, since Maia’s knowledge of fancy cars led to important evidence, Diane convinces Boseman to hire her too. Maia, crying outside the office, says that her life is over. Diane assures her it isn’t.
Boseman’s fellow name partner, Barbara Kolstad, whom he didn’t consult, isn’t thrilled about Diane’s arrival. They have a tense first meeting, and it doesn’t improve when Diane’s old firm sends her a bunch of African masks to decorate her office as a prank.
The person who delivers the masks is none other than Marissa Gold, a quirky, slightly annoying fan favorite from The Good Wife. She convinces Diane to hire her as an assistant temporarily while she looks for a real one, but of course we all know she’s going to end up with the post. And when she successfully gathers class members for a class-action suit Maia and Lucca are pursuing, she gets an offer from Diane, despite the slew of much more professional-looking, highly qualified African-American candidates (mostly women) that Diane has already interviewed.
The new firm’s model of business is to pursue cases against Goliaths, financed by a pair of Silicon Valley data science capitalist types who run magical data analyses on each case before deciding whether to finance it. Diane’s first proposal is rejected, and she doesn’t get much to do in the second episode, legally speaking.
Rose isn’t slated, at first, for anything this fancy; she’s drafted to provide legal advice to union members. Though she’s warned to do only advice, not work, she’s moved by the plight of a man named Frank who was interrogated for hours by his company and coerced into signing a confession that he’d stolen seventy thousand dollars’ worth of sneakers, leading to his wages being garnished. She and Lucca go to arbitration with him, where the arbitrator is blatantly on the side of the company.
But in arbitration they learn that the company’s been using an interrogation method called the Friedman method and, when they do research, they learn that many companies get middle management trained in this method in order to get confessions out of their employees. The data scientists are persuaded to finance a class action, and the motion to dismiss is heard by yet another familiar face from The Good Wife, bleeding-heart liberal Judge Abernathy. Things look pretty bad for the defense when Maia points out that they kept someone on as an employee who they supposedly think stole seventy thousand dollars, and that they consistently lie to employees to force confessions. It’s pretty clear that they use the interrogation method to claw back employees’ wages rather than to actually solve crimes.
But at the very end, the lawyer from the other side reveals that Frank was also accused of stealing and fired at an earlier job. They had rejected a settlement offer in his favor that would have decimated the class action, so now he’s shit out of luck.
Meanwhile, Lenore has shown up to plead her husband Henry’s case with Diane. She persuades the soft-hearted Diane to visit Henry, despite Diane’s anger at both of them, and try to convince him not to plead guilty. Then Harry and Lenore use a sob story about Lenore having cancer to get Maia to call her mother back, at which point it turns out it was more “a cancer scare” than actual cancer. Then, at the end of the episode, Maia visits her mother at home only to find her mother clearly having a romantic tête-à-tête with none other than Uncle Jacks. DUN DUN DUN.
The fact that this show opens with the shock of Trump’s inauguration—something that is particularly going to upset someone with Diane’s ultra-feminist, blue-stocking liberal sensibilities—is a rich signal of what’s to come. Diane, who has worked hard all her life, is defeated in one fell swoop and left with, she feels, nothing to show for it. Not only her own career, but her cherished dream of seeing a woman in power (later, she will unpack a keepsake in her office, a photo of herself and Hillary Clinton together), are in tatters.
The fact that the show revolves around people rebuilding their lives after a scandal closely reflects the origin story of the parent show. Alicia Florrick, the multi-layered antiheroine of The Good Wife, survived a sex scandal caused by her husband to morph from a meek stay-at-home mother to a ferocious, confident lawyer. The material was ripe with possibilities: any time a life is utterly destroyed, you have the possibility of watching a phoenix rise from the ashes. Even the word “poison” was first used to describe Alicia, who, like Diane, couldn’t find a job until her old friend Will took a chance on her. And this is a scandal with much more far-reaching consequences than a sex scandal. The corruption of the finance industry, especially the idea of discovering that corruption within one’s own family, is rich territory for a show to explore.
However, the fact that this is a spinoff with a very similar jumping-off point means that the new show will inevitably need to stand up to the involuntary comparisons anyone will draw. And it’s a rare show that stands up to The Good Wife at its best. Maia’s a sympathetic character and Rose Leslie plays her with a curious, intense, sometimes uneven air of passion and naïveté. But she doesn’t seem to possess the same level of complexity as Alicia Florrick, who was a magnificently layered character, one who (thanks to superb writing and acting) the audience knew better than she knew herself. Similarly, Christine Baranski is an absolute delight on screen, but Diane’s motivations here are slightly thin; it’s hard to imagine a liberal lawyer who’s a veteran of multiple waves of women’s rights movements ever having wanted to abandon the country for Provence as Trump took office, rather than staying and fighting for justice as she is doing. So, to harp on the Good Wife comparison, the triumvirate of women at the center of the show—Lucca (who bores me so deeply that I can’t be bothered to work up a whole sentence on her right now), Diane, and Maia—are uniformly sympathetic and seemingly decent in a way that may make them likable but may not make them good material for a really meaty drama.
The inevitable confrontation between Diane’s liberal creds and her white privilege (which is in evidence here, as she’s already brought two people on to this nearly entirely black firm, both of whom she had personal connections with, and both of whom are white) is probably going to be interesting if the show handles it well. But it’s a tricky topic for TV to get right. And the prospect of a show that features a scrappy firm going after giant, unjust corporations presents the possibility of juicy cases-of-the-week.
So there are definitely good signs here, but I must admit that watching two episodes of this show made me realize afresh what a rare combination of factors makes for a truly great show. You can’t just have an interesting situation and well-written characters. The key is for the characters themselves, their complexities and motivations, to shed light on the theme—and the theme to shed light on the characters. Alicia’s scandal shed light on who she was, a woman who had repressed her desires to the point where she no longer knew herself, and we eventually realized that she too had a dark side as sinister as her husband’s. The new show likely won’t and shouldn’t tread the exact same thematic territory, but the question remains: is Maia merely a good person who had something bad happen to her, which can make for an interesting pilot but won’t make for a truly outstanding show, or is there some deeper connection that can allow the story of her parents to shed light on her own character and storylines?
All of which is to say, I’m not sure that this will be one of those works of art where every factor works together and produces something greater than its parts. But it seems like it may be a good show, and for now, I will keep watching to see if it surprises me.