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Return of the Kings

In ‘Evil’ and ‘The Good Fight,’ husband and wife writing partners Robert and Michelle King have two of the best procedurals on TV. Now they just need to get viewers to watch them.

CBS/Ringer illustration

How do you move on from Jeffrey Epstein’s frozen dick?

That was the question facing showrunners Robert and Michelle King, on top of the now-typical dilemmas of making TV during a pandemic: how to film safely; how to make do with constraints on locations and crowd size; how to work quarantine in to the plot, if at all. For the legal drama The Good Fight, which was shooting its fourth season when lockdown began, there were more specific obstacles. The show ended up shortening its 2020 run from a planned 10 episodes to just seven, ending on an abrupt, if oddly fitting, note. For its finale, the show that so perfectly captured the absurdity of the Donald Trump years zeroed in on Epstein, a figure who embodied the era’s air of elite impunity. “The Gang Discovers Who Killed Jeffrey Epstein” wasn’t planned as The Good Fight’s last episode for over a year. Still, it was as good a capstone as any for a show about how living through interesting times makes conspiracy theorists of us all.

Following the Epstein finale, The Good Fight was left with an almost existential quandary: What now? In its final shot of the severed body part, forgotten in a tank on the billionaire’s infamous private island, the show delivered the perfect visual metaphor for democracy’s dying DMT trip; the Trump age was nothing if not obscene, ridiculous, and hilarious all at once. But it did so last April, just in time for reality to become (even) stranger than fiction—and stayed off the air long enough for its de facto muse to be voted out of office. How would the ultimate Trump show adjust to the Biden administration?

“The question was, ‘Is this still a relevant show?’” Michelle recounts over Zoom. “The answer, at least for us was, ‘Yes, unfortunately.’” Trump may be out of office, but the chaos he represented hasn’t disappeared. It’s just transformed.

Luckily, the Kings are no strangers to adapting on the fly. In their time making procedurals for broadcast networks like ABC and CBS, the married writer-producers earned a reputation for doing everything their counterparts on cable and streaming could, but backward and in heels. A 2014 Emmy campaign for The Good Wife, of which The Good Fight is a spinoff, argued the show had all the depth and nuance of other prestige dramas, but more than twice the number of episodes and much less lead time. Under those tight constraints, the Kings managed to handle curveballs like the late-series departure of Good Wife regular Josh Charles, an unplanned adjustment the show successfully turned into riveting TV.

Now, the Kings are streaming players themselves. The Good Fight began on CBS All Access, a paywalled platform that prompted critics to lament the limited reach of the most urgently relevant show on air. The Kings’ other current show, the supernatural mystery Evil, wrapped its first season on CBS in January 2020, just in time for an extra-extended hiatus. In 2021, both shows have migrated to Paramount+, the bulked-up All Access successor bankrolled by parent company ViacomCBS. Season 2 of Evil and Season 5 of The Good Fight launched within a week of each other earlier this month, the result of pandemic delays and a hectic schedule of back-to-back writers’ rooms and overlapping production. “You’re like, ‘OK, which show am I in now? What date is which episode?’” Robert says of filming, editing, and mixing two seasons of TV at once. “Everybody’s running around with their heads on fire.”

For fans, the hope is that an expanded service can help introduce both shows to the wider audience they deserve. The Good Fight started as the result of a trade-off that no longer seems necessary: the creative freedom to get more explicit in its political commentary in exchange for a smaller stage. Evil, on the other hand, started on broadcast, a medium that never felt like the right home for its playful, oddball premise: a group of investigators employed by the Catholic church look into various happenings to see whether there might be demonic influence at work. With characters who span the belief range from priests in training to full-on atheists, it’s a fusion of The X-Files and The Exorcist.

The Kings didn’t learn that Season 2 of Evil would air on Paramount+ until they’d already filmed the whole volume. The pivot nonetheless allowed them to edit the show differently than they had in the past, without network standards and practices in mind. “In post, we’ve actually been able to enhance what was already basically a streaming show that we just happened to be showing on a network,” Michelle says. “We’re never going to do the orgies that you might have on Westworld or something like that,” Robert adds. “But we’re in the midst of visual effects [and can] do something that is scarier, more violent”—and more sexually explicit, like a night terror that haunts staunch skeptic Ben (Aasif Mandvi) by trying to seduce him in his sleep. The darker tone also suits the new season’s plot. After resorting to violence to protect her daughters in the Season 1 finale, psychologist Kristen (Katja Herbers) starts to worry she may be a little too familiar with Evil’s titular concept.

For The Good Fight, the move to Paramount+ is less about substance and more about exposure. CBS All Access was an early combatant in the Streaming Wars, launching in 2014. But it also ran counter to the bigger-is-better logic of Netflix and its competitors, which collect a slew of satellite brands under a single umbrella. All Access was largely an extension of CBS, plus a few original series like The Good Fight and Star Trek: Discovery that earned some buzz, but not enough to make All Access an attraction of its own. Paramount+ reverses course, looping in the likes of MTV, BET, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, and, of course, Paramount film releases like A Quiet Place Part II, which will land on the service next month.

Robert likens such blockbusters to “carnival barkers at the gate,” attracting subscribers—just as Godzilla vs. Kong and a recut Justice League did for HBO Max—who might then stick around for, say, a thoughtful dramedy about a predominantly Black law firm in Chicago. The Kings say they’ve already heard that Paramount+ users have been watching back seasons of The Good Fight in meaningful numbers, though as is the norm for streaming companies, they don’t share exact figures.

What the Kings do have is the drive to keep pushing their work forward. Evil and The Good Fight aren’t all the couple worked on during the pandemic; in between making two full seasons of TV, the Kings also produced The Bite, a limited series from cable provider Spectrum—one of the few outlets more obscure than CBS All Access—in which a COVID-19 variant spread via bite becomes a de facto zombie apocalypse. (It’s a spiritual sequel of sorts to BrainDead, the Kings’ ahead-of-its-time satire that aired a single season in 2016.) Shot under social distancing constraints and airing in May 2021, The Bite is ambitious but already dated, with the same sparse setups and topical premise as other time capsules. But when it came to working the pandemic into their preexisting shows, the Kings found a better balance between reflecting the outside world while preserving the ones they’d carefully built.

The issue of how, or whether, to weave the real 2020 into a fictional one was already front of mind when production got back on track. “Every single show that was written during the pandemic had that conversation. No one was thinking, ‘Oh, well, we don’t need to consider this,’” Michelle says. “Everyone had that conversation; not everyone came to the same conclusion.” That observation applies to the Kings’ own shows, which handle lockdown quite differently. Evil’s second season picks up moments after the first, allowing the new episodes to live in that eerie liminal space between hearing news reports from China and shopping for masks. For a show that’s already about spiritual struggle on an epic scale, ill omens and biblical plagues fit right in. Evil kicked off its Zoom writers’ room in March 2020, making it one of the first shows to start some form of remote production. Even when there aren’t explicit nods at what’s to come, like a CNN chyron about a mysterious virus, a certain dread suffuses the season.

The Good Fight, on the other hand, is tightly wedded to current events; past subplots include the infamous pee tape and the 2018 midterms. The show was never not going to tackle the pandemic head on; same goes for the 2020 election and the January 6 insurrection. What still managed to astonish about last week’s premiere is how it folded all these events, each enough to power their own season of TV, into a single hour. “We all talked to each other over Zoom and we wanted to know what each other had been doing,” Michelle says of the writers’ room, which didn’t convene until last November, allowing for at least some hindsight on the preceding eight months. “The feeling was, we love these characters as much as we care for each other. We want to know how the characters got through 2020.” The result is “Previously On...,” an episode that blends real-world developments like the death of Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with show-specific business like writing off two major leads.

Neither Evil nor The Good Fight feels derailed by the pandemic, or like they’ve suffered from the Kings’ packed schedule. If anything, the shows hit closer to home than ever, even as they feature outlandish inventions like a fire-starting ifrit or the ghost of Frederick Douglass. When a renegade judge played by Mandy Patinkin—the platonic ideal of a King guest star, though this is somehow his first appearance on one of their shows—starts his own unauthorized court, it seems oddly rational. In the face of so much uncertainty, all you can do is make your own rules.

“I feel like 2020 gave us a hall pass to the surreal,” Michelle says. “Because every day you just looked around and said, ‘How is this possible? Can this be?’” The Kings have always excelled at breaking down the big picture into bite-sized stories that still manage to satisfy. These days, it’s a skill set that comes especially in handy.