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‘The Good Fight’ Is the Legal Drama That Laughs (and Cries) at Trump

The CBS All Access show just concluded its blindingly good second season, drawing cathartic laughs from chaotic times

Christine Baranski CBS All Access

“It’s been a very odd year, Diane,” Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo) says to Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) on Sunday’s Season 2 finale of The Good Fight. “Odd” is an understatement: In the finale alone, Diane is accused of conspiracy to assassinate the president, goes before a grand jury and learns that her bedroom has been bugged, and receives an anonymous tip from a former porn star who meets her in a deserted garage but notes that she’s never done deep throat. Boseman, meanwhile, finds himself on a committee to protect lawyers from targeted killings that’s been stacked with right-wing representatives, including the airheaded host of a fake Fox & Friends; an incompetent, Trump-appointed judge; a drama teacher who thinks a snappy song can solve the problem; and an NRA official who advocates arming attorneys and equipping them with bulletproof briefcases.

The episode depicts a series of disturbing events and refers to even more ugliness offscreen; Diane responds to Boseman’s comment by recounting the case of a deported pregnant woman who was killed shortly after returning to the country of her birth. Yet the reflective, late-night office exchange toward the end of the episode is somehow soothing and inspiring. The lights are low, and Chicago sleeps outside. Boseman reclines on a couch in the law firm’s lush appointed offices, his tie askew. His fellow name partner and ex-wife, Liz Reddick (Audra McDonald), curls up comfortably in the couch’s other corner, a pillow on her lap. Diane downs champagne and drapes her legs over the arm of her chair. No one wears shoes. The world may be mad, but at Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart, at least, there’s caring, commiseration, and companionship—and more importantly, perhaps a solution. “I think I know what I need to do,” Diane says.

Throughout its 13-episode second season, The Good Fight pulled off the near-impossible: It managed to be both the most explicitly political and the most unfailingly fun show on TV. The Good Fight routinely reminded its audience of the worst in the world, wallowing in the negative news that many viewers turn to TV to drown out. Yet a combination of judicious plotting, an unparalleled cast, and cathartic dark comedy elevated the series from a solid, 10-episode first season to a longer and stronger second slate in which it consistently satisfied in a crowded Sunday slot and earned a renewal from its oxymoronically named network, CBS All Access.

Politics have played a part in the series since its inception: The first scene of last year’s premiere, which was hastily reshot in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s election loss, showed a dismayed and disbelieving Diane tuning into (and then tuning out) the inauguration. But in Season 2, Trump is essentially a series regular and Big Bad. He’s there in the “previously on” before the first episode, and he’s there in the finale’s last shot, ominously alluding to “the calm before the storm.” In between, he appears via sound bites, tweets or, in one amusing scene, voice-mimicking software. He lurks like Voldemort on the periphery of the action, unnamed but nonetheless driving the week’s current crisis. Each episode’s title marks the number of days since Trump took office, implicitly likening his presidency to a hostage situation; the finale is “Day 492.”

Creators Robert and Michelle King have been mining the news for procedural subject matter since their antecedent series, The Good Wife, premiered in 2009. The second run of The Good Fight touches on anti-immigrant policies, police violence, gun control, fake news, sexual harassment, and the #MeToo movement. Despite an ever-accelerating news cycle, The Good Fight feels immediate, hopscotching between national affairs and tight-turnaround episodes built on the backs of Bachelor in Paradise and Aziz Ansari.

CBS All Access

That headline-ripping relevance may be rooted in the Kings’ ability to be nimble behind the scenes, which they demonstrated by revamping the series’ structure after the first season. The makeover started with the set, which was rebuilt from scratch on a new soundstage—albeit by a decorator who has worked with the Kings since the start of The Good Wife, indicative of the continuity that pays dividends for fans of the seven-season series that preceded the streaming spinoff. The drama also promoted Michael Boatman (as partner and token Trump voter Julius) and Nyambi Nyambi (as investigator Jay) to series-regular status, added McDonald, and phased out Erica Tazel, whose scheming Barbara Kolstad didn’t develop as the showrunners had hoped. The first season’s central story—the paternal Ponzi scheme that enmeshed associate Maia Rindell (Rose Leslie)—wraps up early in the second season, bringing an end to a Madoff-inspired arc that unspooled too slowly and arrived a little too late. The second season’s spotlight shifts back to Diane, which means more Baranski and, ultimately, better TV.

Like the country’s political climate, today’s Diane is different, less serene and self-possessed than the person who presided over Lockhart Gardner. Although her personal life looks up in some ways—she makes back the money that she lost in the Ponzi scheme and reconciles with her husband Kurt—she’s reeling from exposure to the Trump regime and resorts to microdosing LSD to calm her nerves. From the first shot of the second season’s premiere, which lingers on the closed casket of the firm’s founding partner, darkness and death suffuse the season. A mysterious murder spree is striking down lawyers all over Chicago, and Diane and her colleagues can’t escape the scare: The partners show up on an online list of targets, the office suffers an anthrax alarm, and Boseman nearly dies after a gunman shoots him as he’s entering an elevator. As the danger builds, Diane trades the microdosing for a sidearm and sessions of aikido. From the elegantly explosive title sequence on, each episode evinces a sense of barely controlled chaos.

The Good Fight isn’t interested in presenting both sides: Any Trump supporters still watching the unapologetically partisan series must really need to know which necklace Baranski will don next, because the conservative characters are mostly Aaron Sorkin–esque caricatures. But because the series is centered on a lifelong liberal partner at a historically black firm, the Kings’ social and political plotlines are rarely heavy-handed; it would be discordant if this ensemble weren’t concerned about the country’s direction. As my colleague Chris Ryan observed on The Watch, The Good Fight sometimes seems like “liberal fan fiction” and “a group-therapy session played out as a legal drama.” In the show’s near-reality, the pee tape is real and actually obtainable, a ruthless Margo Martindale is driving the DNC toward a midterm takeover, and the prospect of impeachment doesn’t seem so remote.

When The Good Fight’s good guys win, though, it’s not because they’re more right or more righteous; it’s because they play dirty and stretch the truth, too. In the finale, Martindale’s character backstabs Diane, and Diane and Adrian simply lie their way out of jams. To survive, they’ve compromised their principles. “What does it matter if we’re a country of laws if the laws aren’t just?” Diane asks in the office. Adrian answers with a question of his own: “It’s OK to break the law?” Reddick, recently departed from a position as a U.S. attorney (in which she was sidelined for sending a Jemele Hill–like tweet), answers, “If it offends your conscience, yeah.”

CBS All Access

Crucially, The Good Fight takes the issues seriously without taking itself too seriously. During an interview in an FBI agent’s office, a flock of birds knocks itself senseless against the glass; this avian extinction event is, evidently, a daily occurrence, and the unfazed agent continues the questioning. Asked earlier this year for his definition of happiness, Robert King responded, “Insensitivity.” The Good Fight’s second season has insensitivity in spades. Diane’s low-level hallucinogenic use leads to surreal and ludicrous sights, like an intimate encounter between two exhibitionists wearing Trump masks, glimpsed through a window in a neighboring building. When she watches TV, real and hallucinated segments blur together, the former barely distinguishable from the latter.

No matter how heavy the dialogue gets, comedy keeps the show’s politics palatable instead of ponderous and preachy; amid its musings about the #resistance, the finale features a madcap cursing scene borrowed from the Larry David playbook. The satire is relentless: The hosts of the fake Fox & Friends begin their broadcast with “President Trump, first of all, how are you this morning?” and “Mr. President, if you’re watching us right now, first of all, you’re looking really good, sir—and I’m not just talking about your border strategy.” And then there’s the pee tape, which comes on a flash drive labeled “P.P” and casts a yellow glow over anyone who watches it. The Good Fight is funnier than most sitcoms, let alone most legal dramas.

The Good Fight sells its scripts’ high-wire acts by boasting the deepest bench of acting talent on TV. Maia, freed from the drudgery of her court case, and newly elevated investigator Marissa (Sarah Steele), who couples Kalinda’s skills with a people-pleasing personality, pal around with Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo) in lighter B, C, and D plots. And constant casting flexes support the show’s uniformly excellent leads, with Martindale, Alan Alda, F. Murray Abraham, Matthew Perry, Gary Cole, Jane Lynch, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Michael Ian Black, Andrea Martin, and Matt Walsh, among others, making cameos or appearing in recurring roles. Although The Good Wife–watching experience isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying The Good Fight, an awareness of The Good Wife/Fight extended universe enhances the proceedings; after 179 combined episodes in this shared environment, almost every face is familiar, and even the most minor characters carry distinct personalities. The Good Wife’s most memorable criminals—Lemond Bishop (Mike Colter), Charles Lester (Wallace Shawn), and Colin Sweeney (Dylan Baker)—resurface this season, as do the semi-senile Howard Lyman (Jerry Adler), the deceptively ditzy Elsbeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston), and a rotating group of recognizable lawyers (Mamie Gummer, Christine Lahti, Becky Ann Baker) and judges (Peter Gerety, Denis O’Hare). Every episode is a mini-reunion.

As much as the Kings would probably prefer to be making The Good Fight during a Clinton presidency, expressing their angst via art has made The Good Fight much more vital than a continuation of The Good Wife’s Obama-era ethos would or could have been. For all its boundary-testing and high-minded ideals, though, The Good Fight succeeds in part because it passes the most basic test of TV: The Kings are still creating characters that we want to spend time with week after week. Watching The Good Fight’s finale feels like spending 55 minutes with friends. And as Diane and Lucca learn before the credits roll, there’s no better way to get through a tough time.