The Good Fight Has an Identity Crisis

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L-R: Sarah Steele as Marissa Gold, Delroy Lindo as Adrian Boseman, Nyambi Nyambi as Jay Dipersia, Erica Tazel as Barbara Kolstad, Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart. Photo: Elizabeth Fisher/CBS

It’s a little hard to know exactly what to make of CBS’s The Good Fight, and nowhere is that more true than in the latest episode. It’s a take on the (permanently?) delayed Law & Order: SVU episode about Donald Trump. It’s an episode of TV, about an episode of TV, that is about a real-life story, in which Diane Lockhart helps defend a TV writer who’s leaked an episode of an SVU-like show that might slander Trump after his network sought to bury it. It’s a hyperaware, hyper-self-conscious storytelling position that is two levels of remove away from the real thing. And when you’re that far away from something, you can have your political cake and eat it too. You can have topical content, and stay a comfortable distance from getting your hands dirty, from reading as explicitly pro or anti any one thing or another.

That weird middleness, the sense of being many things at once and landing somewhere muddled in between, is reflective of a lot about The Good Fight, which was picked up for a second season today: There is a fundamental identity crisis baked into the show’s DNA. And at the same time, it’s also really good. At a moment when it feels quite easy to leap to one side or the other, when it’s so tempting to take hard-nosed positions and plug your ears against opposition, the show’s considered, thoughtful distance comes off as both confident and unusual.

The Good Fight is a series about an all-black law firm in Chicago, and yet the central feature of its spinoff identity is that it has two white protagonists. (Possibly three if you count Diane Lockhart’s assistant Marissa, who’s taken on an increasingly large role in the past few episodes.) Each of those white protagonists is in some way extremely privileged, but also has a claim to victimhood — the founding premise of the show is that Diane lost her life savings in a Ponzi scheme; the young ingenue lawyer played by Rose Leslie is the innocent and much-harassed daughter of the accused Madoff stand-in. Leslie’s character is also gay, something the series is both proud to make clear, and also treats mostly as a minor side issue.

The show’s “this, but also that” character makeup gets further refracted through the stories it chooses to tell. More than its predecessor, The Good Fight feels committed to a foundational interest in social justice, doing the right thing, and staying on the right side of history. It’s right there in the name, of course, and also in the repeated references to how much this new law firm cares about being a force for good in the world. They’re known for taking on cases that crack down on police brutality in Chicago, and for representing underserved communities like little-guy union workers against massive corporate entities. So far, that sense of righteousness is also reflected in its episodic plots — last week saw Diane defending a woman trying to reclaim her last donated embryo from a couple who were planning to destroy it, and although they could’ve been equally sympathetic figures, The Good Fight does little to humanize them. That episode also features Maia Rindell tracking down the source of a fake Twitter account claiming to be her, and introduces a returning villain from The Good Wife: Mike Kresteva, played by Matthew Perry. He claims to want to reduce police brutality cases in Chicago, but he’s going to do it by reducing brutality cases, not brutality. Our Good Fight protagonists are on the right side of each of these stories. They’re do-gooders.

But the show is also loath to lean into any kind of full-on social justice warrior identity. Reddick, Boseman, and Kolstad has a markedly different racial makeup, but its wardrobe and furnishings carry much of the same pristine, razor-sharp, pinstriped, and meticulously tailored implications of Lockhart Gardner. These are not public defenders shuffling into court in ill-fitting suits, nor are they Silicon Valley, hoodie-wearing disruptor types. The accompanying insinuation is clear — they are financially successful, and also traditional. They are, necessarily, self-interested and steely-eyed.

They would be a good fit for The Good Wife’s icy-cold musical score, too, which tended to signal anticipation and plot excitement with repeating classical motifs. The Good Wife’s score felt in keeping with the sense that action was being taken, that tension was constantly ratcheting up, and that the fast churn of Alicia’s legs as she hustled through the office made things happen faster. There are still pieces of that in The Good Fight. But it also includes a musical cue that’s quite different — a “who, me?” wordless musical clip that tends to kick in when things take a turn for the worse. “Oooh oooh,” it sings to us, with a Bobby McFerrin–esque “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” vibe. As a damaging fake news story about Maia makes its way to dastardly Mike Kresteva’s desk, The Good Fight’s musical score is awash in that shrugging, relaxed vocal cue, the musical equivalent of “… welp!” The character types, and many of the characters themselves, may be the same, but the world has shifted. Human agency is still important, as it was on The Good Wife. Practicality and pragmatism and a moral compass — these things still matter. But at the same time, your unseen musical narrator now hums resignedly when things fall apart rather than spurring you to action. You do your best. Things still go awry. Ah well!

The premise of The Good Wife was born out of Zeitgeist, out of a rash of public images of women standing next to their misbehaving public-figure husbands at press conferences. But it was also the result of a television model that guaranteed it a healthy audience while it figured out how to complicate and undermine that opening gambit. The Good Fight is similarly Zeitgeisty, but it’s been betrayed by precisely that “of the moment” premise. It was initially conceived as Diane Lockhart climbing back on top after being wronged, with Clinton parallels never far from the mind’s eye. And then Trump won. And in spite of the show’s postelection rewrites, this is yet another angle to The Good Fight’s sense of identity crisis. The opening image of the pilot, with Diane watching the inauguration and then turning it off in disgust and horror and powerlessness, still echoes through the series. Trump looms over the show, but the associates of Reddick, Boseman and Kolstad are not marching in the streets (yet) or ending emails with “#resist.” Nor are they jumping on the bandwagon out of self-preservation, which I’m sure would’ve happened instantly on The Good Wife. They’re just as baffled as everyone else.

This all seems like it should be a recipe for TV disaster, especially since The Good Fight is also an identity crisis of a production model — it’s a pilot balloon for a stand-alone streaming service (CBS All Access), but it has none of the “binge it all, one-season in a gulp” serial structure of a Netflix series. Big pieces of its narrative, which is released weekly, feel uncannily like a TV show being made for CBS five years ago, not a new streaming platform today.

But that deeply, internally conflicted identity crisis at its core, that sense of a show stuck somewhere between streaming and traditional network TV, of characters caught between self-interest and social justice, of a company that has no idea what to do with the current political state … it feels good right now. Its middleness, its equivocation, and most especially its sense of “… welp! Crappy things do happen, I guess!” feel unexpectedly right in this moment. And The Good Fight is perversely, cheerfully confident in itself, and in its ability to occupy this weird half-measure place. If the first several episodes of this show are a multidimensional identity crisis, it’s the kind of identity crisis that feels improbably reflective of the recriminations, uncertainties, self-doubts, and self-examinations of 2017 more generally. It’s surprisingly refreshing to see a show that confidently stands up and says, “Shit is weird right now, everyone!”

Nowhere is this more visible than in the show’s title credits, which are possibly the weirdest credits I’ve seen since Homeland. Demure, glossy, professional objects appear against a black background. And then each of them, in succession, explodes. The music shifts in intensity, until it finally reaches a kind of repeated, open-throated war yell, sung by classical choir. What does it mean? Is it trying to be silly? Or defiant? Or tongue in cheek? Or sincere? It is supremely strange, and also blithely unconcerned with your confusion. “2017!” The Good Fight says. “Who even knows! Let’s just do our best. And when we can’t, maybe blow up some office supplies.”

The Good Fight Has an Identity Crisis