The first voice you hear in The Good Fight belongs to Donald Trump. It wasn’t meant to be that way: Robert and Michelle King had conceived their CBS All Access spinoff of The Good Wife beginning with a victory lap for liberal law partner Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), whose office décor prominently featured a grip-and-grin photo of her and Hillary Clinton. But instead, thanks to some close-to-the-wire reshoots, we open on Diane’s face frozen in shock as she sits in a darkened room watching Trump take the oath of office.
The episode’s title, “Inauguration,” does double, and maybe triple, duty. It’s a new day in America, if an exceptionally gloomy one, and it’s a new era for Diane, who quits the firm she co-founded with plans to retire to the South of France, only to lose her life’s savings in a Madoff-like investment scheme. It’s also a new era for CBS, which is using the extension of its most acclaimed show—if far from its most popular—to break ground for original scripted programming on its subscription streaming service. (It was supposed to be joined by Star Trek Discovery, the franchise yang to The Good Wife’s yin, but that troubled production has already shed one showrunner and is now scheduled for later this year.) Although the original series was nominated for 42 Emmys and won five, including two for star Julianna Margulies and one for her (sometimes virtual) co-star Archie Panjabi, its frequent losses to shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones clearly stuck in the Kings’ craw. Towards the end of the show’s run, CBS took to running “For Your Consideration” ads highlighting the difference between The Good Wife’s 22-episode season and cable shows’ eight to 13, which is a little like an early primate complaining about the unfair advantage of opposable thumbs.
That being the case, you might expect The Good Fight to run with the advantages of its tidy 10-episode first season. But the two episodes available in advance of its Feb. 19 premiere show the Kings and co-creator Phil Alden Robinson trying to balance the comforting familiarity of a broadcast show with the freedoms of nonlinear TV and not immediately succeeding in either realm. Even the show’s distribution feels caught between two stools. The first episode will premiere simultaneously on CBS and CBS All Access, while subsequent streaming-only installments will arrive at a weekly clip. The staggered delivery of broadcast meets the additional cost of streaming: The worst of both worlds. Although The Good Fight’s images are letterboxed to give them an added veneer of class, it looks to be shot on a substantially smaller budget than its prestige predecessor. The pilot’s credit sequence, which features a succession of office furnishings exploding in slow motion to the Ren Faire strains of David Buckley’s theme song, reeks of a desperate attempt to seem “edgy,” like a recently divorced dad showing up with a fresh tattoo.
The Good Fight’s episodes are studded with F-bombs—Federal Communications Commission–safe alternate takes were shot for the pilot’s broadcast version—but the show thus far shows little inclination to run with the freedoms afforded by its medium. It’s not even as adventurous as The Good Wife, which regularly took advantage of its longer seasons to build episodes around innovative structural gimmicks. In its first two episodes, The Good Fight has its hands full moving Cush Jumbo’s Lucca Quinn to center stage and introducing Diane’s goddaughter Maia Rindell (Rose Leslie), a novice lawyer whose fledgling career is almost immediately torpedoed by her involvement in the same financial scandal that wiped out Diane’s retirement savings. Diane and Maia’s attachment to that Ponzi scheme makes them both toxic, especially among Diane’s former allies; like Madoff’s fund, this one purported to do good as well as turn a profit, and Diane vouched for it with liberal friends and organizations, all of whom are similarly devastated by the loss. But they find a home at Lucca’s new firm, a largely black concern run by Delroy Lindo’s Robert Boseman.
Dealing with race was never The Good Wife’s strong suit, but the Kings seem intent on attacking the issue full-bore here. In “Inauguration,” Diane defends the city of Chicago in a police brutality suit involving four white officers and a black victim; when Robert’s partner, played by Justified’s Erica Tazel, balks at bringing Diane on board, he quips that she’s a “diversity hire.” Tazel’s Barbara Kolstad takes an immediate dislike to Diane: It’s clear she sees her as a typical white liberal, a pre-intersectional feminist whose solidarity is only skin-deep. And though we’re naturally in Diane’s corner, the show gives us some reason to agree with that assessment. In the second episode, “The First Week,” Diane needs to hire a new assistant, and she bypasses the black candidates Barbara has lined up in favor of a familiar white face: Sarah Steele’s Marissa Gold. Granted, Marissa’s also taken the initiative and provided critical assistance on a new case, but there’s still something slightly ugly about the way she uses her previous connections to jump the queue, and the show doesn’t shy away from it.
The Good Fight is timid in other ways, though. One of The Good Wife’s most distinctive features was its brutal realism about the amoral workings of the legal system: Sometimes our heroes were on the right side, sometimes the wrong, but in either case who won was solely the function of who played the better game. In The Good Fight, there’s a scene in the pilot where Diane explains to idealistic Maia that every client deserves vigorous representation, the kind of one-L civics lesson The Good Wife took for granted its viewers already understood. As the show’s most prominent new character, Maia ought to get the most real estate in its opening episodes, but there have been so many stories about naïve attorneys discovering what the law is really like, and Leslie’s wide-eyed anxiousness adds nothing new to the mix.
If this were a broadcast show, one could forgive the sluggish start, but The Good Fight does little to generate the kind of excitement necessary to get audiences to sign up for yet another paid service, and it’s doubtful those who already subscribe to All Access for à la carte NCIS episodes will find much added value in it, either. By the end of its run, The Good Wife was pretty well out of gas, and The Good Fight is still struggling to fill up the tank.