The Good Fight season 4 is loopy, paranoid, all over the place, and gripping: Review
Reality takes a vacation as the CBS All Access procedural returns.
The world was already ending last year on The Good Fight, night sky lit blood red, emergency sirens echoing down empty streets. Lawyers sheltered in place in the offices of Reddick, Boseman, & Lockhart. Adrian (Delroy Lindo) sipped his whiskey and pondered the void. “I used to think that something would save us,” he said. “Now, I don’t see anything.” Lucca (Cush Jumbo) dropped acid toward a different conclusion: “The end times are beautiful.”
The apocalypse was averted long enough for this CBS All Access wonder show to get to season 4. But Thursday’s mindbending premiere launches The Good Fight toward an uncertain future. The series shoots on a tight turnaround for maximum topicality, which means that production was recently shut down due to, like, the entire world shutting itself down. In a statement, CBS All Access said “we remain hopeful that we will be able to resume production on the few remaining episodes soon.” I remain hopeful that quarantined humanity will discover The Good Fight, a relentless fusillade of thought-provoking entertainment that wedges dreamy storytelling, romcom absurdity, and Kafkaesque paranoia into its ongoing tale of cool lawyers who talk smart. (Important to note that CBS All Access is currently offering one month free.)
Showrunners Robert and Michelle King are network mainstreamers with a taste for the avant-garde. Their brand of chatty weirdness turned CBS’ freshman series Evil into a genuine broadcast success, and now they’ve returned to their Good Wife spin-off with all the guardrails removed. The season premiere is an outright hallucination, sending Diane (Christine Baranski) into a parallel universe where everything is wonderfully, terribly different.
Whether you’re a Good Fight fan or a newcomer, you’ll get something magic from the premiere. I’ll respectfully spoil the concept right now. Way back in The Good Fight’s pilot, Diane watched the inauguration of Donald Trump with progressive horror, and the last couple seasons have tracked the creeping surreality of the ensuing administration with pointed, satiric glee. The premiere imagines another world where Hillary Clinton won. The upside-down is right-side up, Diane discovers. Elizabeth Warren sits for a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court. The wealthy are getting the tax they deserve. Nobody’s ever heard of anyone or anything called “The Mooch.”
The twist comes fast and furious. In Hillary Clinton’s America, Harvey Weinstein is a popular power-monger, an Oscar-winning Hollywood legend (Diane loves his movies!) whose record of Democratic Party support is makes him a D.C. bigwig, too. Allegations against him are hushed up with nasty conjecture about past-their-prime actresses. #MeToo and the Women’s March never happened. Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose are still smiling on NBC and CBS mornings.
There’s a plot thing happening that is surprisingly tense given the dream logic involved. And the larger conversation the premiere is engaging in opens up all sorts of arguments and refutations. What I admire, though, is the sense that Good Fight is challenging its own skewed perspective, and suggesting a road forward for the mass of humanity still bruised from 2016. It’s a tricky thing to suggest even when citizens aren’t pondering viral death and economic collapse, and I don’t want to butcher the message into something stupid like “Was Trump secretly good for liberal feminism?” The road being paved here is more complicated: “Are there terrible things we are resolving now that would’ve just stayed terrible if Hillary Clinton were president?”
The counterfactual might be personal. The Good Fight was developed in a lost historical moment when Clinton’s victory looked assured. The series has a cockeyed political perspective, flooding nefarious Democratic operatives alongside its Trumpling dunce-caps. You wonder if we’re getting a window into what Good Fight would’ve looked like under a Clinton presidency: a regular burst self-critical liberal skepticism, concerned about everything going wrong in a world where one big thing went right.
At one point in the premiere, I thought this whole season would take place in the alternate universe. That doesn’t happen, but after watching the next three episodes, it’s impressive how this standalone episode sets a tone for Good Fight’s brave new world. The law firm’s become a subsidiary, and their new corporate overseers have a vaguely xenomorphic presence, infesting the office with postmodern art and glimmer white walls. There’s a very literal man upstairs: Gavin Firth (John Larroquette), presiding over all from an office that vaguely resembles where Dave Bowman emerged from the 2001 wormhole.
Gavin’s an important white guy surrounded by important white people, and Good Fight keeps approaching the acquisition with droll cynicism. “They bought us to put us in their pictures,” says Liz (Audra McDonald), arguing that the entire kamillion-dollar purchase of RB&L was just a diversity write-off. Gavin assigns Diane to the pro bono caseload, telling her to “make our firm a good citizen no matter what it costs.” It’s a tantalizing offer: infinite resources for justice! But you realize very quickly that Diane’s do-goodery is a kind of moral carbon offset, something a legal corporate can brag about in between long malicious hours billing the demons of capitalism.
The premiere sets the tone in an unexpected way. Trump isn’t gone from The Good Fight, but the focus is shifting. You could say the show’s changing majors from poli-sci to econ. Characters run afoul of Memo 618, an inscrutable legal code that seems to function as “a get-out-of-jail free card for rich and powerful clients.” Diane pursues Memo 618, and I do worry that the serialized quest mostly involves her paraphrasing “What is Memo 618???” to different characters.
I’m more intrigued to see how Good Fight approaches the uber-rich in its other scattered storylines. Lucca befriends a wealthy lifestyle magnate whose lonely-at-the-top private jet existence is both alluring and off-putting. One episode-of-the-week case begins when a wealthy client comes in upset about a play that seems to be satirizing him. “I wanna sue!” he says. “I wanna Gawker these a--holes off the stage!” He’s referring to Peter Thiel’s successful big-money vengeance against a journalistic institution he didn’t like, but that line speaks to a larger eeriness pumping through Good Fight this season, a feeling that the law no longer applies to the people who make the most money.
These early episodes are finding their footing. Larroquette’s an unexpectedly friendly presence, though his character’s Zen koans feel parodic in the wrong direction. Hugh Dancy’s a delightful addition to the cast, but giving his legal associate a photographic memory feels like one quirk too many. I’m more stoked to see Zach Grenier as resident problematic attorney David Lee, a Good Wife refugee finding bracing new life as the anti-PC stormtrooper in a historically black firm. And season 4 offers some truly incredible material to Julius (Michael Boatman), once the firm’s resident Black Republican, now a federal judge trapped in a hazy quandary that threatens his entire life. Boatman’s usually been a sharp comedic foil. This year lets him shade new depth into his character: Whimsical virtue, and encompassing fear.
The Kings are testing their own boundaries in season 4. One episode curves into a Socratic dialogue, with the Democratic National Committee tasking RBL to explore potential avenues for drawing out the African-American vote. The episode is talky, wonky, almost plotless, and kind of brilliant, cramming thoughtful points about racism and reparations into a satire of diversity that’s also a sincere attempt to portray the complex personal-political spiral of any conversation so charged.
Will the current health crisis affect The Good Fight’s future? It could be a hell of a story from the perspective of TV lawyers, and you imagine the Kings are already googling “coronavirus fraud.” Of course, that supposes that The Good Fight’s status is sustainable. It’s the jewel of CBS All Access, an impossible show on the dozenth streaming service, its very existence requiring a massive boom in scripted content. Some showbiz nihilists in my circle think that boom is already over: the nosediving economy has burst Peak TV’s bubble, while the Tiger Kinging of viewers’ attention has already inaugurated a new TV monoculture. “Come the next recession, what’s the first thing people drop?” one character says in the new season. Is the answer “everything but Netflix”?
I’m dancing around something: Is this the end of The Good Fight? I hope not. The Kings are CBS longtimers, and I suspect some Larroquette-ish network executive recognizes the cruciality of a show that isn’t another disappointing Star Trek. The show’s existence still feels like an accidental miracle, though, a good thing that only happened because so much else went wrong. I don’t love all the new developments in season 4, but I remain in awe of Baranski’s unfussy nobility, the way she makes Diane a curious and bemused warrior. She believes in the system, the social foundation that requires everyone to follow the rules. “If it doesn’t work that way, then the country breaks down,” she says quietly. “It’s over. We’re done.” Not yet. B+
The Good Fight