Requiem for a stream.

By Darren Franich
March 03, 2021 at 09:00 AM EST
The Good Fight
Credit: CBS

CBS All Access had The Good Fight, one of the greatest TV shows made in one of the worst periods of human history. That's a legacy.

When the unhinged legal thriller debuted four years ago, it was a spin-off on a spin-off. The sequel to the long-running Good Wife was the first scripted original on its parent broadcaster's streaming service. CBS was in a position of strength, the only network that didn't need to juke its Nielsens with fuzzy math about delayed viewing or engagement or The Fans. But the top deck sinks last. CBS' upper-demographic weekly-procedural steadiness represented the precise opposite of everything "streaming" was.

And few boys' clubs were older or boy-er than CBS in 2014, back when CBS All Access first launched. Fuddy-duddy boardroom thinking doomed the digital outlet with that unforgivable name. Six syllables long! I swear, every time I recommended CBS All Access to someone — every time I begged them to subscribe, or offered them my password — I could see their eyes glaze over between the "All" and the "Access." But what's in a name? Whoever thought a website for Internet Flicks would swallow the world?

CBS All Access ends today. Viacom's TV future is Paramount+. It's the same service, more or less, rebranded for the decade of re-conglomeration. The Paramount+ Super Bowl commercials boldly climaxed with an 80-year-old man on a remote snowy mountain peak. A familiar logo, sure, but what a message: Join us in our lonely ice-cold nowhere! Star Trek star Patrick Stewart appeared with the corporation's catalogue all-stars: Stephen Colbert, Dora the Explorer, Jeff Probst, Gayle King, some golfer or other, the least well-known Spock. If you blinked then you missed Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart, wry and exhausted and brilliant. I love that silly advertising campaign just for her cameo. Any attention for The Good Fight is good attention.

The series will jump to Paramount+ for its upcoming fifth season. Other refugees include various Star Treks and No Activity. I recently learned No Activity will pivot to animation for season 4. I also recently learned about the existence of a show called No Activity. Non-subscribers don't realize CBS All Access offered a robust slate of concept-y originals. Strange Angel was the historical drama about the actual mystical rocket scientist who palled around with L. Ron Hubbard. Tell Me a Story told old fairy tales in modern-day Manhattan, or something. I watched four episodes of One Dollar, and I do remember the dollar. Coyote imagined what if Breaking Bad were bad. My mom swears by Why Women Kill.

Practically the first thing Jordan Peele did after Get Out was sign on for a new Twilight Zone, an exciting project until anyone saw it. I recall hope for Josh Boone's The Stand, which certainly happened. Stephen Colbert's Tooning Out the News is… a cartoon about news? I'm being cruel to be kind here. It was a tough era to not be Netflix. Just ask Hulu, the pre-eminent not-Netflix.

The CBS All Access archive was extensive, and confounding for anyone who remembers when brands had identities. The original Perry Mason, sure. I Love Lucy, that tracks. But also, Snooki & JWoww, all 48 episodes? Is that Another Period?????? If you searched for Wonder Showzen, the anti-everything puppet satire which first aired on MTV2, you had to marvel at the recommendations automatically populating below it:

Smarter analysts than me will sort CBS All Access into the history of the streamer wars. Was it an inevitable failure, wasting a head start while Disney+ and HBO Max scaled Netflix's mountain? Or a missing link leftover from the brief assumption that internet TV would just be all the old networks with new subscription fees? If Paramount+ takes off, its predecessor will get remembered into a necessary stopgap, ramping up Star Trek's visibility while the larger corporation prepped iCarly and Frasier reboots.

For me, CBS All Access was The Good Fight. And The Good Fight was the best argument for CBS All Access as a style, a mood, a whole artistic perspective. Co-creators Michelle and Robert King are dedicated to the not-trendy TV idea that conventional structures can bend in unconventional directions. So Good Fight is classical legal drama — and it isn't.

Baranski and talented co-stars like Audra McDonald and Delroy Lindo play very TV-ish lawyers who wrap up new cases every week. The show's Chicago looks like New York and is where Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and Washington D.C. go to sue each other. The weekly procedural structure keeps the wheels of justice turning. But lawyers get assassinated in the street, and lightning balls explode in the sky, and rich people ignore subpoenas, and Diane microdoses acid. Also: the wheels of justice stop turning. There are breakaway animated musical numbers, and a progressive feminist rebellion descends into ends-justify-the-means amorality, and then there was the Jeffrey Epstein episode.

This kind of is what would happen if you designed a show for Wonder Showzen heads and NCIS devotees. "The guard rails are gone, Diane," Lindo's Adrian says in the season 3 finale. "I can't see the road." He's talking about a whole plot thing, some Trump-appointed judge who might be corrupt. But he's also talking about how the evening skies above Chicago are bright red, and the power is out, and nobody trusts anything. 

So the Kings created a snapshot of a nation and a whole TV medium in a state of transition: Conventional reality left behind by digital eternity, once-united states aflame with perpetual insurrection, the old assurance of episodic storytelling dissolving into the never-ending cliffhangers of cinematic universes. It's a journey from old media to new media — from CBS to all access. The transformations have not ended. The Good Fight will return. Fine, Paramount+, take my money.

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