Over the course of its three seasons, The Good Fight has become one of the most stunning shows on television. It’s incisive, biting, and hilariously surreal as it dovetails into the present political and cultural moment, featuring sharp performances by Christine Baranski, Delroy Lindo, Cush Jumbo, and Audra McDonald, just to name a few. But its greatness sometimes feels limited by its home on CBS All Access, a streaming service that admittedly offers much greater creative freedom than network television … with far less of a potential audience. So, when it was announced that the first season will air on CBS this summer, starting Sunday, June 16, I was intrigued and curious.
The Good Fight existed in a different tenor in its first season, still shaking off the vestiges of The Good Wife, as Christine Baranski’s regally evocative lawyer Diane Lockhart joined a majority-black law firm in Chicago. But, loosened from broadcast standards, it made clear that it wasn’t just a spinoff of its predecessor series. (Characters regularly curse and have sex, for starters.) The subject matter gets into knotted territory that made me wonder: Would CBS censor the show in the same way it did the third season’s musical short about Chinese involvement in big American companies? How would it be edited for broadcast, not just because of all that cursing and sex but because of its episodes’ run time, which sometimes hovered around the 54-minute mark? Would certain subject matter be verboten? To find out, I spoke with showrunners Michelle and Robert King about the task of editing the show for broadcast TV, how they handled all that cursing, and what performance they regret cutting down most.
When did the conversation first start about bringing the first season to broadcast?
Robert King: Around two months ago, [CBS Television Studios president] David Stapf mentioned it was a possibility and we said yes. There was going to be a bit of editing to get it there, but we were obviously very excited because to get a bigger audience is always a good thing.
Are you still editing the episodes, or is that completed at this point?
Michelle King: Just finishing up the mixes, but the editing is done.
Robert King: Yeah, we’re just doing all ten mixes over the next week.
And who was the editor?
Robert King: Two of the editor assistants from that very year, Katy Skjerping and Jake Cohen. They are wonderful. Basically, we had three to four days per episode to edit.
Robert King: And we needed them. You had to go backwards and forwards to figure out, if you dropped one thread, would you impact anything else? They were in L.A. and we’re in New York, so it was all done basically through a Skyping program.
The power of technology! Looking back at the first season, was there anything that you wanted to change dramatically on a structural level?
Robert King: The fourth episode, “Henceforth Known As Property,” there were two to three [things]. One was about a woman who wants to have a baby and the eggs have been dispersed, and the second story is about Rose Leslie’s character having to deal with lies coming from a Twitter bot. It was always a mess. As we streamed it — what is that, three years ago? — it was never coming together very well. What we found when we started pulling things out of it is that it started to hold together a little bit better. But more importantly, the music — the songs that were used whenever lies were being discussed — became more of a structural conceit that made it hold together better. We think it plays much better now that it’s shorter.
Let’s talk about the sixth episode, “Social Media and Its Discontents.” I’m very curious about that editing process. In the story line, the firm tries to create a code for ChumHum regarding banned users and their toxic, racist, misogynistic comments. A lot of the comments are very intense and graphic. Lots of “fucking” and “bitches” in there. How did you edit the language while retaining that incendiary tone?
Robert King: It was very difficult. CBS was sympathetic because the point was the controversial language, you know? It wasn’t secondary, it was really the point. So we were surprised that we were able to get some language that is intended to be offensive. And then, with regards to the “fucking,” a lot of that was doing audio dropouts. Whenever someone says “fucking” on Survivor, there’s an audio dropout, not a bleep, and a weird digital smear over a mouth.
Michelle King: So that lips can’t be read.
Robert King: You need the power of all those nasty things being said. And by the way, some of the nastiness is in bad, racist jokes of online people. The language isn’t always as offensive as the full context of the sentence, and that was allowed to stay intact.
I want to ask specifically about one term — I hate this term as a black woman, but I’m going to say it — the “porch monkey” comment. I was rewatching it and I was like, Oh God, I forgot this word is used! Will the very racialized language stay in?
Robert King: We were allowed to keep that one. A word I hate too. I’m sorry that we have to talk this way, but “kike” we were allowed to retain too. Again, because the show’s being critical and almost angry about that kind of thing.
Michelle King: Yeah, in order to talk about these things you actually have to talk about these things.
I’m curious also about length per episode, because one of the longest episodes in the first season is about 54 minutes. How difficult was it editing for length?
Robert King: It was really tough. One technique for cutting episodes down was pacing up the cutting style. When we did The Good Wife, the language came very fast, almost in that kind of His Girl Friday Howard Hawks thing where lines are overlapping and people are almost talking past each other because they’re talking so fast. Often, this was a way just to collapse what was a lot of material into 42 and a half minutes. So, really, it was returning to that kind of cutting style. Some of the scenes were exactly the same, but we took out the air between the lines. That was one thing.
The other thing is trimming the head and tail of scenes, which is also a pace way of getting things moving along. Third is we took out a [story] thread or two, but they were not threads we thought endangered the whole. There were one or two scenes about the Schtup List. We dropped a scene where we seemed to explain something we already saw. And the fourth method is taking out some of the musical montage that arose as a continuation of the stories.
Which episode do you feel changed the most?
Robert King: Probably episode two, which was [the firm] representing a union member who’s accused of stealing 60 running shoes for his business in order for the business to claw back a loss. It’s a tendency of department stores and retail stores using police methods to get false confessions from employees. That one was probably impacted the most because we needed to get, I think, 12 minutes out. There was just a lot of lines you just missed. I missed the union leader complaining that whenever everybody raises their hand because they’re supposedly on lunch break, he says, “You’re not on lunch break, I know you’re not! Lower your hands!” There were all these fun little elements we had to reduce because there was just no time.
On the flip side of this question, was there any episode where you felt cutting it down lessened its power?
Michelle King: Perhaps the tenth episode, [the season finale “Chaos”].
Robert King: Yeah, the tenth episode, because it was so all-over-the-map. It needed that length to hang together, and I’m not sure if it has the same power. We haven’t seen the mix, but as we were cutting to it, it didn’t cling together that well.
Michelle King: With any season finale, you sometimes want it to breathe just a touch more to really have the emotional resonance.
You mentioned that episode four got cut down quite a bit, but in terms of timing, which episode lost the most? Was there anything you regret losing in that process?
Robert King: I think it’s the John Cameron Mitchell one, episode six, although it might be episode two. Those ones, close to 12 minutes had to come out. Maybe even 14 minutes. They were a nightmare.
Michelle King: John Cameron Mitchell was just heavenly, so any trimming there was a bit of a wound — emotionally!
How did you approach the editing for that? Did you rewatch the episodes and have a conversation with the editors?
Robert King: Katy and Jake gave their best suggestions, and they got it within three or four minutes most of the time. And then we would review it and we missed some things, so it was like, “Back to the drawing board!” I would say the biggest guide was not cutting just in terms of plot, because you would lose the energy and the comedy. Sacrificing plot and sometimes full threads so that you got more of the full effect of what the episode was about. By the way, we cut a new main title for the episodes too. One of the things about network TV is that sometimes they just have —
Michelle King: Title cards instead of title sequences.
Robert King: Right. They don’t let me do title sequences anymore, but on streaming they let us do a long title sequence. It’s about a minute and 20 seconds. And so David Buckley, the composer, and Barnstorm, the VFX house who did the opening credits, did a recut of it that was 20 seconds long. David Buckley also did a new score for it. It’s not in every episode — the first episode still has the full credits sequence and I think the third does too — but some of the others only have the 20-second bumper.
Was there any particular performance where you struggled to make sure the emotional impact remained, despite the time constraints?
Michelle King: To bring back episode six, one of the things we had to trim back was John Cameron Mitchell’s Felix Staples talking about Diane as a mother figure. That was a pity.
Robert King: That was such a fun relationship between the two of them. I’d say it’s 70 percent there, but it still made you feel bad. One other thing I think we may have hurt a little bit — Christine Baranski’s relationship with Erica Tazel, who was in the first season. It was maybe one of the sacrifices that had to be made, but we loved that relationship.
Are there any plans to show seasons two and three on broadcast?
Michelle King: There is no plan for that at this point.
Robert King: I don’t even know how they’d do it because they’re so Trump … but maybe that would work, I don’t know. The only way, I guess, is you’d be in the midst of the general election next summer.
Are there any final thoughts you would like fans to know about the editing process?
Robert King: We hope they like it! We like it a lot. I think sometimes we improved things. What would be really good is if they liked what they saw, because they could then go to All Access and see the full episodes with all the nudity and swear words and extra content intact!
Michelle King: And then, of course, the next two seasons are right there.