The Good Fight is a show that likes to be in the arena of public discourse, which is different than the ripped-from-the-headlines ethos of other shows of its kind. It wants to have a point of view. It wants to provoke. It wants to test the boundaries of what’s possible for a network(ish) to get away with doing. And it’s not afraid to hit a few false notes here and there as a consequence. That’s part of what makes the show great.
And so it was perhaps inevitable that The Good Fight would barrel its way into the “cancel culture” debate, albeit at a time when the term is exhausted and mostly meaningless, a tool for right-wing politicians and moneyed provocateurs to rally support against the hordes of social-media scolds. More often than not, criticism gets willfully confused for cancellation: Let’s say a critically acclaimed legal drama about a Black-run Chicago firm loses two major Black characters after the most recent season, causing some to question how well those characters were written. It would not be out of line to take such a show to task for this persistent shortcoming, and doing so would not be akin to crumpling up that show and tossing it in the bin. That’s just part of being in the arena.
This week’s episode finds a clever angle into the debate. Wayne Brady joins the cast as Del Cooper, a streaming service executive who comes to Reddick Lockhart with his company’s new $8 million asset, a stand-up comedian named Morgan. Morgan has gained over 200 million followers for her edgy routines, but a risk-averse company like Del’s worries that an errant joke or two could quickly devalue its costly investment in her. And so they’re asking the firm to vet the jokes in Morgan’s act to see if any of them are too offensive. This builds to a farcical scene where the partners and the young associates pack into a board room, each with a ping-pong paddle that’s red on one side and green on the other. If they find a joke funny, they turn their paddle green. If they find it offensive, they turn it red. If they find it funny and offensive, as many jokes are, then … well, paddles only have two sides.
As the meeting breaks down into a chaotic argument over comedy, the point becomes obvious: Different people find different things funny and thus nobody can agree on where to draw the line, much less which jokes cross it. The best solution would be to let the whole messy process play out on stage and on Del’s streaming service, and the audience will make its own decisions on whether Morgan is funny. But Reddick Lockhart still has a client to please, and The Good Fight is smart about the corporate timidness that can sand the edges off of comedy or anything else remotely provocative. There’s some imagined solution where Morgan appeals to everyone while remaining funny, but ultimately Del is just seeking a little official ass-covering and the firm obliges with a document that Morgan rightfully laughs off. Lawyers are supposed to be the butt of jokes, not the arbiters of good comedy.
Where the episode missteps is in the absurd charade of the Reddick Lockhart attorneys, led by Jay and the young associates, distributing permits to tell jokes on taboo subjects, which can then be haggled like trading cards. Some are broad targets, like “Little People” or “the French,” while others are amusingly specific (“Greta Thunberg”) or directed at specific players within the company. (Liz offers the HR chief “Black Boss” in exchange for “Human Resources.”) The idea is that if everyone has official permission to tell a specific off-color joke, it will have a neutralizing effect. But anyone who’s worked in an office, or even watched the sitcom The Office, knows that hierarchies within a business would void such an egalitarian arrangement. Bosses always feel freer to tell jokes than the underlings at risk of losing their jobs.
As for other important business, the shoe finally drops on Diane’s stealthy attempt at playing FBI informant under her husband’s nose. Kurt had been struggling about whether to come forward and identify Dylan Pike, a man he’d trained in firearms, as one of the January 6 insurrectionists. His instinct is not to name names, but Diane had no such reservations, and now it has backfired horribly on them legally and martially. The legal part of the equation is tantalizingly murky, because the grand jury case against Kurt may be a kind of ruse for the FBI to get their hands on Diane’s legal files, specifically as they pertain to the drug kingpin Oscar Rivi. The AUSA prosecutor Nancy Crozier, so wonderfully played by Mamie Gummer here and on The Good Wife, even makes the absurd argument that Kurt and Diane’s papers have somehow cross-pollinated.
But the damage to Diane and Kurt’s marriage may be harder to patch up. Their relationship has always been on shaky ground, even apart from their ideological differences. There was a good stretch when they were married but weirdly uncommitted to being together, and now that they’ve back together, the Trump years have made it more difficult for them to bridge that gap. Kurt has been tiptoeing quietly around Trump country, landing a job at the VA and then keeping a low profile as the new administration has taken charge. But it stands to reason that Trumpism would drive a wedge between Diane and Kurt, just as it has for many other families who have had more trouble co-existing as civilly as they had in the past. Diane is appalled that Kurt would shield a man who tried to violently upend American democracy. Kurt is appalled that Diane would go behind his back and against his wishes.
With that, The Good Fight creates a fine mess. Based on this week’s episode, it’s better off just making messes than engineering a meta-narrative about its right to do so.
• Great fake-out opening with the POV of Carmen watching a reality show called Love in Bali while doing a headstand. I was mere seconds away from contacting support about my backward screener.
• Diane and Liz pressuring Carmen to stay with the firm rather than freelance for Oscar Rivi is a nice character moment for Carmen, who has displayed an almost dangerous ambition and savvy for a junior associate but hasn’t gone so far afield that she doesn’t see the value in staying loyal to the firm. Her iconoclasm will surely get her into more trouble later, but it’s smart not to turn her into a rogue a mere eight months after she passed the bar.
• Judge Wackner learning the jury selection process allows him to twist it to his end by keeping potential jurors who answer his questions honestly, even if they disagree with him. It’s possible to hate Monty Python and still get a seat on the jury. Such is his radical brand of justice.
• I’m going to need a future Jonathan Coulton video explaining NFTs. I’m drowning here.