clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Christine Baranski Is Fighting ‘The Good Fight’

On CBS’s new spin-off of ‘The Good Wife,’ Diane Lockhart finds herself taking on a different set of political struggles

(CBS)
(CBS)

The Good Fight opens with an aghast Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) taking in the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump. Diane is visibly upset, though still impeccably put together (and rocking her signature chunky necklaces). She forces herself to keep watching until she just can’t take it anymore, switching off the TV and storming out in disgust. The Good Fight is a spin-off of The Good Wife, a show about politics and presentation. So it was always going to acknowledge our now-president, especially after swapping Julianna Margulies’s Alicia Florrick for Baranski’s Diane, a woman with a picture of Hillary Clinton prominently displayed in her office. By following that woman into a new phase of her career, The Good Fight follows the country into a new, particularly fraught national moment. The Good Wife shadowed and reacted to Obama’s presidency; The Good Fight is doing the same with Trump’s.

Cocreators Robert and Michelle King are working from the same template as their last series, sometimes blatantly: The Good Fight starts with a remarkably similar humiliation of its protagonist and utilizes many of The Good Wife’s same players, down to the beloved character actors who make up this fictional Chicago’s judiciary. (Shout-out Denis O’Hare.) But eight years after the premiere of the first series, the Kings are dealing with vastly different source material in the real world. The result is a series that strikes a grimmer tone, and not just because it has the swearing and nudity privileges that come with being on streaming service CBS All Access instead of CBS proper. The darkness is also directly linked to the series’ social consciousness — and to the fact that it’s responding in real time to the inequities of the present moment. The Good Fight’s title connotes a commitment to social justice that its heroes demonstrate with their chosen legal battles.

The next time we see Diane after her walkout, she’s tendering her resignation and real estate shopping in Provence. Needless to say, The Good Fight does not follow a retired Diane’s delightful, low-stakes adventures in the French countryside. She’s called back to work by a Madoff-like Ponzi scheme that strips Diane of her life savings. There’s an added wrinkle that keeps her from being an innocent victim: The fund was run by her oldest friends, Henry and Lenore Rindell (Paul Guilfoyle and Bernadette Peters), and over the years she’d vouched for them to potential clients-turned-victims. But whatever suspicion hangs over Diane pales in comparison to what crashes down on Rindell scion Maia (Rose Leslie), her goddaughter and a newly minted lawyer just months from the bar. As Diane’s younger mentee buckling under the pressure of unwanted attention, Maia is obviously the Alicia Florrick in this equation. A colleague even gives her the same advice Alicia receives in The Good Wife’s pilot: Step away from the internet and lose yourself in a book. Unlike The Good Wife, though, both Maia and her godmother are in the worst kind of spotlight. Neither is in any position to throw the other a lifeline. The person best positioned to help completes the setup and makes up its most intriguing part.

That’s where The Good Fight’s third principal comes in. The last time we saw Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo), she was working hand in hand with Alicia. Now, she’s joined up with Reddick, Boseman & Kolstad, a Chicago law firm that instantly sets itself apart from The Good Wife’s home base in one crucial respect: It’s historically black. (Alicia’s sudden absence from Lucca’s professional life doesn’t even earn the dignity of an explanation, except in The Good Fight’s dismissive press materials: “Shortly after the finale of The Good Wife, Lucca Quinn set off with Alicia Florrick to start a new firm. However, Alicia soon decided to step away from the law and start a new chapter in her life.” A “new chapter”? Don’t ever get on Robert and Michelle’s bad side.) We first meet the attorneys of Reddick Boseman on the other side of a negotiating table from Diane and Maia, who represent Cook County in a police brutality civil suit. After she’s rejected by every other — read: whiter — prestige firm in town, Diane accepts Adrian Boseman’s (Delroy Lindo) offer to come on board, taking Maia with her.

The Good Wife often fumbled when it took race on as a capital-I Issue, as when Alicia ended up sequestered in a hotel with her (also white) opponent for state’s attorney, talking Eric Garner and Michael Brown in a literal kitchen debate. But the Kings have always been shrewd on the intersection of race and the white-collar workplace. When it explored the more subtle ways implicit bias could play out, The Good Wife cannily dissected the blind spots and consequences of white liberalism, as when Alicia’s husband Peter promoted a less qualified white staffer to be his deputy over more senior black colleagues, or when a squadron of white partners worried if a black potential hire fit their usual “type.” The Good Fight is the Kings’ way of putting their money where their mouth is: They’re putting bleeding heart Diane, The Good Wife’s foremost signifier of that well-meaning liberalism, in a position to be called out for her inadvertent biases. More importantly, The Good Fight shifts from criticizing exclusion to addressing it.

Both elements come together in the second episode, when Diane meets her new partner Barbara Kolstad (Erica Tazel), who never wanted to bring a white lawyer into management in the first place. Barbara tightly tells Diane she once heard her give a lecture on racial hiring; Diane jokes she hopes she didn’t embarrass herself too much. “Not too much,” Barbara replies. The hostility is palpable, and we see Diane’s arrival from Barbara’s perspective: This woman who’d once had the temerity to condescendingly give advice on diversity has deigned to join a truly “diverse” workplace only at her most desperate. It’s powerful yet subtle, a commentary on the link between race and social status that The Good Fight gets across without veering into after-school special mode.

The dynamic among Diane, Maia, and their new coworkers is also convenient shorthand for how The Good Fight’s approach to politics compares to The Good Wife’s. The original show, which was named for its protagonist’s role in a Elliot Spitzer–like scandal and tracked the uncomfortable intersection between private careers and public ones, was tethered to electoral politics. The Good Fight lacks such a direct link, though the Kings stay topical, starting with that police brutality lawsuit and continuing through the next episode’s subplot about pro bono work for a union (labor rights being another issue particularly germane to the progressive cause as of late). The Good Fight nonetheless maintains its longer-term focus on race in the midst of its case of the week: Maia is the least experienced lawyer from Reddick Boseman in attendance, but she attracts the longest line of union members looking for legal advice. She also happens to be the only white lawyer.

The Good Fight turns the Kings’ attention from politics-as-sport to the politically charged interactions that make up our day-to-day lives. Wage theft, financial fraud, and casual racism all have larger social implications that don’t easily translate into simple legal or legislative solutions — or, to this point, much compelling television. Which is why The Good Fight feels particularly well-suited to a time when much of its audience is feeling especially disenchanted with democratic institutions — or worse yet, locked out of them. (According to a 2014 survey, The Good Wife unsurprisingly ranked among The Newsroom and The Daily Show on the list of Democrats’ favorite series.) This is a show whose protagonists position themselves in opposition to power — a major pivot from The Good Wife, whose characters were corrupted by their proximity to it. The Good Fight’s parallels to reality weren’t all planned in advance, but they are notable. Since the pilot was literally being filmed on election night, much of the change occurred in post-production: According to Baranski, Diane originally announced her retirement to her colleagues by proclaiming, “There are no more glass ceilings to break.” That line was cut. Trump’s election casts her decision to leave the law in an entirely different light: Instead of My work is done, the impression Diane gives is now Fuck it, I’m out.

A few days later, she’s back in, though not exactly because she wants to be. “Are we on the right side here?” Maia cautiously asks Diane early in the first episode. She’s just seen her godmother argue against giving a settlement to a young man whom video evidence shows being viciously beaten by the police. But that was before Maia and Diane’s fall from grace, and their defection to the opposing team. They’re on the right side now, if not for the right reasons. In the face of injustice — police brutality or creeping authoritarianism — maybe one’s motivation for doing something matters less than doing it at all.