There was plenty of head-scratching four years ago when CBS announced they would be spinning off their critical darling The Good Wife into a new show starring Christine Baranski. Not about the series itself; Baranski had played fan favorite Diane Lockhart for seven seasons on the legal drama, so a spin-off with her as the lead was a natural choice. But the destination for The Good Fight was anything but natural: The show was set to stream exclusively on CBS All Access.
At the time, it was one of two series announced for the CBS streaming service, which came long before the modern rush of network-based streamers like Peacock and HBO Max. The other series was Star Trek: Discovery, which was originally planned to be the streamer's launch show, but there was a delay in production that required The Good Fight to move up its premiere date. Suddenly, the spin-off series was carrying the weight of an entire new streaming service on its shoulders.
In that first season, The Good Fight felt very much like a sequel to The Good Wife. It debuted less than a year after The Good Wife’s finale, and it largely maintained the tone of the original series. Yes, there were some swear words here and there, but the shell of the show was the same: a legal procedural with a brain, a heart, and a flair for the dramatic. I
But Season 2 brought about a dramatic change. The cast was shuffled, with former Good Wife guest star Audra McDonald taking the place of Season 1 regular Erica Tazel, and a couple of supporting players (Michael Boatman and Nyambi Nyambi) getting bumped up to main cast. The setting remained the same — a largely Black law firm in Chicago that Diane joined after public ruin and Donald Trump’s election — but the focus moved to our greater world under Trump. Plots about the infamous pee tape, impeachment, and immigration took center stage. The show still felt like a network TV series in form, but the subject matter grew increasingly sharp and modern. You wouldn’t have been surprised to see Season 2 on Netflix or Amazon instead of CBS All Access.
Then Season 3 promptly flipped the script once again. The series adopted animated, musical interstitials to explain concepts, and brought in Michael Sheen for a divisive one-season arc as Roy Cohn-esque character. (Casual drug use became a major recurring thread, after Diane’s much-discussed micro-dosing plot the prior season.) Diane and McDonald’s Liz Lawrence became involved in a shadowy underground group designed to destroy President Trump. And in one particularly absurd plot, Downton Abbey’s Gary Carr — yes, Carr playing himself — joined Diane’s firm in an attempt to learn about the law for an upcoming role.
For some, the absurdity of Season 3 went too far. (Personally, I still enjoyed it, but the Sheen storyline sucked a lot of oxygen out of the room.) Regardless, the season was a clear sign that the onetime legal procedural’s roots were all but torn out. The network drama-turned-streaming series shared characters with The Good Wife, but the stories were nothing the original show would ever have tackled.
Season 4, which premiered last Thursday, brings with it at least one musical number, Baranski in leather fetish gear (!) and a plot about executive privilege screwing up the legal system. It’s hard to imagine The Good Wife ever going so high-concept, so sexual, or so abstract in its treatment of the law. But the presence of Baranski in a courtroom — in one scene facing off against recurring Good Wife antagonist Louis Canning, played by Michael J. Fox — reminds us of exactly what drew us into this universe in the first place.
While CBS All Access has yet to really take off as a platform, The Good Fight remains its crown jewel. As network TV continues to dwindle in cultural significance, this spin-off offers a path forward for the shows that once drew people to the Big Four networks. It’s grittier, sexier, and even more profane, but the DNA is there, waiting to thrill us with a well-placed “Objection!” The Good universe has changed, but the heart and soul are still firmly intact.
The Good Fight is available for streaming on CBS All Access, with episode 2 of the fourth season dropping today.
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Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles. Follow his musings and rantings on Twitter @kevinpokeeffe.