Six years ago, as the US went to the polls, a new TV show was busy filming its first season. The Good Fight was a spin-off from the long-running drama The Good Wife, which starred Julianna Margulies as anti-hero Alicia Florrick, a woman returning to a law career after her politician husband is embroiled in a sex scandal. This new show would focus on another character from The Good Wife, Florrick’s boss and mentor, Diane Lockhart – played by Christine Baranski – a die-hard liberal and feminist who was about to witness her dream become reality as the US voted in their first female leader.
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Then, mid-way through filming the pilot, the election results landed. Suddenly, a show about a female lawyer in a world where the ultimate glass ceiling had been smashed and Hillary Clinton was president was totally redundant. The show’s creators and showrunners Robert and Michelle King hastily reworked the opening scene to show an open-mouthed Diane Lockhart sitting in a dark room, watching Trump’s inauguration on TV in disbelief and horror.
And so began a show that, over the next six years, would continue to rip storylines straight from the headlines – with plots covering Donald Trump’s presidency, MeToo, police brutality, Jeffrey Epstein, the 6 January insurrection, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Covid and many more, outlasting Trump’s presidency to reach a now sixth and final season. It also punched well above its weight as a legal drama to become one of the most political – and creative – shows on television, and one of the few to truly capture the disorienting and surreal experience of living in the world over the past few years.
Emmy-winner André Braugher appears as a series regular, new law firm partner Ri’Chard Lane, in season six (Credit: Elizabeth Fisher/Paramount+)
After creating and showrunning The Good Wife for seven years and 156 episodes, husband-and-wife team Michelle and Robert King weren’t initially interested in being at the helm of a spin-off show. Michelle came up with the idea – to have Diane Lockhart as a “diversity hire” in a majority black Chicago law firm – but the plan was for the Kings to help get it started, then hand over the reins to someone else. The Trump presidency presented an interesting opportunity, though – and gave a new meaning and urgency to the show’s title. “The Good Fight as a title was a trope, and almost a cliche,” Michelle King tells BBC Culture. “But then when Trump became president, it felt like this liberal law firm would be fighting him almost any chance they got.”
The Good Fight was not officially a political drama, and yet, while shows like Scandal, Veep, Madam Secretary and House of Cards grappled with how to adjust to the Trump era, either ignoring it or creating their own versions of characters and events, The Kings faced reality head on, using it as fodder for their scripts – and, more importantly, placing their characters firmly in that world. “It’s better I think to look at what the personal reaction is to this time, because that’s where the emotion is, that’s where the drama is, but I think it’s also where comedy is,” says Robert King.
The Kings – who met working in a shoe store in 1983, and are now one of the biggest forces in TV – were already well-practised in drawing on real life for their shows. In The Good Wife, the cases being fought in court often echoed real-life events – there were episodes inspired by Reddit users falsely identifying the Boston bomber, email hacks by Anonymous and one entitled “Bitcoin for Dummies”. But in The Good Fight, real-life events came to the forefront.
In real time
True-life TV is nothing new. This year especially has seen a spate of dramas based on real events – from the tech scandals of WeCrashed and The Dropout, to Pam & Tommy and the upcoming This England, starring Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson. But it usually prefers to look at things in the rear-view mirror. The Good Fight is about as real-time as scripted drama gets, frequently referencing recent and ongoing events – for instance, the new season will address the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade.
It gives the show an immediacy, Robert King explains – as if you’re living in the same world as these characters, and might bump into one of them on the street. “I think that is fun. And often TV tries to avoid that. People think, well, I’m writing something for the centuries, so let’s not make it about this very moment. But when you make it about that very moment, it makes it have more resonance. I’m a little worried everybody writes to such a generic quality of reality that you’re not creating resonance in the same way you could.”
Michelle and Robert King have been called 'the couple behind TV's boldest shows' by The New Yorker (Credit: Alamy)
No topic is off limits, even those that are particularly polarising or contentious. In the new season, there is a storyline about a pop star being sued for breach of contract after refusing to play a concert in Israel. The situation provokes furious debate – not just in court, but among the associates at the firm – a reflection of heightened tensions in the writers’ room. “The writers’ room is exceptionally smart and well-informed,” says Michelle. “We talk about a lot of things that are in the news or that people are experiencing, and if there is a topic that brings up a lot of hot feelings – that’s when we know we have an episode. So we are actually steering into that, not away from it.”
The Kings’ have purposely nurtured a diverse writers’ room, not just in race, but also gender, age, sexuality and political leanings, and when things get heated behind the scenes it frequently spills over into the script. “We did an episode where it turns out that the African-American people in the law firm knew all the names of the African-Americans killed by the police, and all the white people in the room did not,” says Robert. “That was directly coming out of the writers’ room and this feeling that there was this odd split even among supposed progressives.”
The Kings aren’t afraid of weirdness – in fact, their way of dealing with an often-bizarre rolling news cycle has been to lean right into it. Creative choices that could have seemed gimmicky – animated musical interludes, an alternate-reality episode where Hillary is President after all (which, said The Hollywood Reporter, took the show to “brilliantly loony new heights”), characters bursting into song or speaking directly to camera to ask: “Is it alright to hit a Nazi, unprovoked?” and hallucinations of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Karl Marx – somehow make complete sense in the context of our current reality. At times watching The Good Fight has felt like a fever dream – but then so has life itself at many points in recent years. In a world where a storyline about a “pee tape” potentially bringing down a president wasn’t just plausible, it’s taken straight from the headlines, almost anything was possible. “Because the news was getting so surreal, it felt like that informed how the show was playing,” says Robert. These touches personalise their show but also give it a lightness when they’re covering an increasingly dark world. “That’s where I believe the show is most successful, in making the worst and the hardest subjects funny in some way.”
Alan Cumming – a regular on The Good Wife – makes an appearance in season six of The Good Fight (Credit: Elizabeth Fisher/Paramount+)
Not everything worked. Michael Sheen playing a brash and unscrupulous Roy Cohn-like attorney sounded great in theory – but the over-the-top character was exasperating to watch. In the last season, bringing in Mandy Patinkin to play a self-appointed judge in a fake courtroom was an interesting experiment that went too far down the rabbit hole, stealing screen-time from more deserving characters and storylines. But the show’s boldness was never less than impressive.
The Good Fight could be a more daring, provocative show than its predecessor because, unlike The Good Wife, it isn’t aired on network TV, but a streaming service – first CBS All Access and now, Paramount Plus. It meant a smaller audience than The Good Wife, and the danger that they were sometimes preaching to the converted (Trump, a keen TV watcher, never tweeted about references to him on the show – which you sense he might have if it was on network television). The show got a reputation as “the best show you’re not watching”.
A step too far?
It did mean the Kings could push things as far as they wanted, politically and creatively – with one notable exception. In 2019, they had planned to include a 90-second animation on Chinese state censorship called “Banned in China” – one of a series of short explainers that were a feature of season three. It would accompany a storyline in which fictional tech company ChumHum were found to be developing a customised version of their search engine for China that would allow the state to censor content. Two weeks before the episode was due to air, CBS ordered the Kings to cut the animated segment. The couple threatened to quit. In the end, as a compromise, the episode was aired with an eight second interlude in which the message: “CBS HAS CENSORED THIS CONTENT” appeared on the screen.
At the time, Michelle King told the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum that the cartoon was about “American entertainment and companies censoring themselves in order the appease the Chinese market.” Jonathan Coulton, the songwriter behind the short, said CBS’ decision was “the definition of irony.” Still, for the Kings, to tell them they can’t write about something would only make them want to do it more – hence a subplot in the new series that addresses Western entertainment entities turning a blind eye to Chinese human-rights violations to protect their profit margins. Robert admits that there is a part of them that likes to stir things up. “Because we’re kind of in the boss role, there is this tendency to throw a molotov cocktail in there, you know, because who’s gonna say no? Let’s challenge them to say no. It’s very childish. But I do think it tends to push things towards more provocation in the narrative.”
For a show that came of age in the Trump years, The Good Fight has found plenty to dissect in the Biden era – especially when the political landscape feels as fraught as ever. It’s also shown itself more than willing to examine the failings of the left, too – with liberal hypocrisy and racism a recurrent thread throughout the show. In season five, Diane’s position as a named partner at the firm is under threat when there’s anger from other staff that a white woman has her name above the door of a historically black firm. We see Diane, who prides herself on her progressive views, leverage her powerful white clients to protect her position – seemingly oblivious to her own biases and privileges – before finally agreeing to step down.
Christine Baranski was nominated for a 2022 best actress Golden Globe for her role in The Good Fight – but has been overlooked by the Emmys (Credit: Elizabeth Fisher/Paramount+)
It added another layer of complexity to a character that Christine Baranski has played brilliantly across two shows and 200 episodes, though – like The Good Fight itself – she’s been consistently overlooked come Emmy time (“We don’t think about it for ourselves,” insists Robert. “But Christine Baranski deserves every award on the planet.”) In The Good Fight, she’s starred alongside a terrific cast – which has included Audra McDonald, Delroy Lindo, Cush Jumbo, Gary Cole and Rose Leslie, as well as guest turns from Michael Sheen, Wanda Sykes, Michael J Fox and, in the new season, John Slattery and André Braugher (and the return of Alan Cumming as Eli Gold – an old face from The Good Wife) – but it’s Baranski’s Lockhart that has been the beating heart of the show, a flawed but fabulous character with lines as sharp as her tailoring.
Over six seasons, she’s been a conduit for anyone who’s felt anger, despair and incredulity at the world. We’ve seen her take up martial arts and axe-throwing, try micro-dosing and join a resistance group in various attempts to cope with what’s happening around her. At one point, when a young woman questions her feminism for her role in taking down a website naming men to avoid (a storyline inspired by a real-life list collecting allegations of sexual misconduct by men in the media), she shoots back: “Women aren’t just one thing – and you don’t get to determine what they are.”
In the new season, in the wake of Roe v Wade being overturned, she’s feeling despondent (“It’s like the last 50 years never happened”) and turns to a hallucinogenic prescription drug called PT108. How she deals with this latest devastation is something we’ll see play out through the upcoming episodes, says Robert. “A lot of people on the left believe that the arc of history tends towards justice, and I think there’s a real sense of ‘well what do we do in this period, when it does not seem like there is progress on a lot of these fronts’. The hard thing for Diane is that she feels like a hamster on a wheel, and what she has accomplished one day is gone the next.”
Writing a fitting ending for one of TV’s greatest characters has been a huge responsibility. “I love Diane Lockhart and I love Christine Baranski, so I wanted to make a series finale worthy of both the character and the finale,” says Michelle.
This final season is based around the theme of civil war. From the off, there’s a sense of impending doom, with violence breaking out on the streets. As President Biden declares Trump’s Maga agenda a threat to democracy, and Trump in turn calls him “an enemy of the state”, it feels as scarily tapped-in as ever. “It’s turning into a kind of explosive moment, which seems like it would be good for the season, although not for the world,” says Robert. It’s a quandary they’ve faced many times before – as he admits that, if Trump had never won, The Good Fight would “not be as good of a show; it would be a little more prosaic”.
As the show nears its end, the frantic news cycle shows no sign of abating, and the Kings could find fresh inspiration for years to come. But they are ready to bow out now, while they have full narrative control, and can end the show how they like. They are also, they admit, “exhausted”, especially as they’re also in charge of another show, Evil, which explores the conflict between religion and science. On top of that, they’re executive producers of the upcoming Happy Face, an adaptation of a true-crime podcast about the daughter of a serial killer, and – in complete contrast – a US version of the UK comedy panel show Would I Lie to You?
There is one aspect of creating the show they’ll miss, though. As the world turned on its head, The Good Fight proved cathartic not only for its fans – but its creators, too. “As showrunners we’re using the show kind of therapeutically because it did feel – and it’s not just Trump – but, like the trolley had come off the track,” says Robert. “You needed to find a way to deal with it. It was probably a good show for that, and therapy for Michelle and I.”
The Good Fight’s final season is now streaming in the US on Paramount Plus.
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