In a recent episode of The Good Fight, two characters are discussing a sexual-harassment case and wonder if anyone involved signed a non-disclosure agreement. Abruptly, they pause. The action freezes, a little red asterisk appears stamped onto the frame, and a little animated short interrupts the scene. It’s a chipper song about NDAs, how they work, and what role they play in the episode, done in the style of an old-school Schoolhouse Rock song.
“If there’s a secret and you want someone to keep it kept / what kind of contract is the carpet under which it’s swept?” the lyrics begin. Cheerful, simple cartoons outlined in black and filled with desaturated watercolors show money spilling out from under a magenta bed; a large bald man wearing glasses, a spiked collar, a leather harness, fishnet stockings, and tall black boots sits calmly eating a bowl of cereal. The chorus kicks in: “NDA, well, you don’t say … ”
“When you see it in the context of a big-budget live-action lawyer drama, it’s so weird,” Good Fight animator Steve Angel admits. After including an animated short about the impeachment process at the end of the show’s second season, these goofy musical interludes have become a regular part of the CBS All Access legal drama’s third season. “I just think it’s funny!” Angel says. “Funny and weird.”
They really are. As written and performed by Jonathan Coulton, who’s behind all of show’s original numbers, the NDA song points out how often NDAs appear on-screen in red folders, then suggests that viewers try to count them all. In the next episode, an animated Roy Cohn twerks on a dance floor while a Schoolhouse Rock-ified Donald Trump moons the viewer. In episode three, the short is about Russian troll farms, and Coulton’s lyrics turn mournful. “There’s a post from a friend / you let down your guard / but it’s just bait on a hook / and you bite down hard,” Coulton sings. “You like it so you ‘like’ it and your friends like you / and now everyone likes it so it must be true.” Another is entirely about cartoon Nazi frogs. Each one is a mood of its own, with self-contained jokes and arcs and characters that last less than 90 seconds. Then the song ends and the rest of the episode proceeds as if nothing’s happened.
Jonathan Coulton started working with The Good Fight’s showrunners, Robert and Michelle King, on their short-lived 2016 series BrainDead, where he wrote musical recap for the “previously on” segments in each episode. Those were strange, too, although their weirdness was matched by how strange BrainDead’s premise was: On a show where space bugs crawl into politicians’ ears and turn them into irrational edgelords, jaunty recap songs were just part of the madness. But even there, the idea was always that Coulton’s music was a mediating layer between the show and the audience, a separate voice outside the episode that could comment on the action.
“We share this sensibility of really liking to mess with the form itself and poke through the fourth wall a little bit,” Coulton says about working with the Kings. “We know we’re a song about a television show,” he adds, although at least once on BrainDead, for no apparent reason except goofiness, the song of the week was instead a recap of a random episode of Gunsmoke. “We did start treating it as a sort of commentary,” he says, and that idea has carried through to The Good Fight. “Once you push through those layers” — when you turn the songs into a combination of recap, informational summary, and opinion — “you get to say a lot of things at once.”
Coulton gets a copy of each Good Fight script and often a short summary of the topic he’s supposed to write about. He spends a few days putting together the skeleton of the song, and then it’s sent to Angel at Head Gear Animation in Toronto, who takes about a week to put together storyboards, and then another two weeks to animate the whole thing. It is a brief, well-orchestrated process that happens with little to no revisions from the Kings. “There’s been very, very little pushback from those guys in terms of choices that I’ve made,” Coulton said. “I really give them credit for the freedom that they give me.”
That freedom extends quite far. As The Good Fight’s third season goes on, Coulton and Angel say the shorts will get darker and more strange. (Though still solidly in the Schoolhouse Rock genre, Angel adds that the images have drifted closer to his own style.) They get more meta-aware, too: In an upcoming episode, one of their shorts appears in place of a clip from another show that the Kings couldn’t get in time. “There’s a character who’s watching a thing on a laptop, and instead of that show, they’re seeing my video explaining why that video wasn’t there,” Coulton says.
There’s at least one Good Fight short that’s so strange and dark, Angel half-joked, “If the wrong people see it, Jonathan and I are gonna be taken away in an ox-cart.” And while the season finale’s song was initially meant to be a hilarious summary of the season’s storylines, Coulton wound up taking it in a very different direction. “It’s not hilarious at all,” he says. “The song itself doesn’t have any jokes in it.”
Both Coulton and Angel are sincere about how much they’ve enjoyed the project, largely because they’re allowed to take the shorts wherever they want them to go. “There are some in the later stretch [of the season] that I’m really proud of,” Coulton says, “I think [the songs] start to say some important things, and do get at the sadness that’s there. It addresses current events and the current political climate in a way that takes it seriously, makes you think about it, but also gives you a place to laugh at it. And hopefully leaves you with a little bit of hope,” he adds.
“I’ve been doing [animation] for a long time, but I think I’ve had more fun and more creative freedom on this job than any that I can recall,” Angel says. For his part, he thinks being a Canadian working out of Toronto makes him particularly effective as a commentator on American politics. “We’re distant enough that we’re not cynical or strident about it,” he explains. “It’s easier for us to maintain a comic sensibility.”
Still, they both recognize why it might feel a little dicey to make silly, upbeat-sounding animated songs about the current American political climate, and doubly so when they’re injected into a legal drama, however playful and bizarre and confident that drama might be. Whatever depth and sadness Coulton’s lyrics suggest, the form itself — short, funny, reductive, juvenile, weird — could be easy to dismiss as making light of serious things. “The risks we’re taking on a couple of these feel like genuine risks,” Angel says. “And if they will be our final undoing, it’s a good way to go out.”