When CBS and Robert and Michelle King were tossing around the idea of launching a spinoff of the Kings’ long-running Emmy-winning series “The Good Wife,” all the elements came together quickly.
“Selling the show was probably the easiest thing in the world,” Robert King says now of the resulting series “The Good Fight,” in wake of the network’s announcement that it will broadcast its first season this summer, beginning at 9 p.m. Sunday. With the exception of the pilot, “The Good Fight’s” first three 10- to 12-episode seasons previously ran only on the fledgling premium streaming service CBS All Access.
As its progenitor, “The Good Wife,” was winding to a close in 2016, almost everyone from star Julianna Margulies to the network agreed that its seventh season would be its last. “I was on board to stay with the show if it continued,” costar Christine Baranski recalls, “but Julianna and the Kings had reached the decision that ‘The Good Wife’ as a show had come to its logical end. They felt creatively that it was a seven-year arc and they didn’t want to be repeating themselves and recycling old stuff. And in terms of Julianna, she was just exhausted and wanted her life back.”
But CBS wanted to keep Baranski in the fold, and they encouraged the Kings to see if they could create the right vehicle. Working with cocreator Phil Alden Robinson (“Field of Dreams,” “All of Me”), the husband-and-wife team conceived a pilot for a new show that in some ways paralleled the setup for “The Good Wife.” Where that first series focused on a woman coming to work at a high-powered law firm just as her prominent politician husband became embroiled in an adultery scandal, the successor would feature a new, young attorney whose father is revealed to be running a Bernie Madoff-type pyramid scheme, ripping off practically every wealthy liberal in Chicago, where both series are set.
Robert King calls the characters “scandal-adjacent.”
In “Fight,” the scam financially ruins Baranski’s Diane Lockhart, forcing her back to work as a so-called diversity hire at a primarily African American firm. The show features other actors from “Wife,” including Cush Jumbo, Sarah Steele, Gary Cole and Michael Boatman, as well as newly cast Delroy Lindo, Audra McDonald, and Rose Leslie as young attorney Maia Rindell, whose father’s transgressions provide the setup. Michael Sheen joins the cast in Season 3 as a Mephistophelean attorney inspired by Roy Cohn, Sen. Joe McCarthy’s counsel during the infamous McCarthy hearings of the 1950s and later Donald Trump’s personal mentor. As with “Wife,” the Kings’ dense plotting services an impressive array of characters each week, some in self-contained stories and others in season-long arcs.
In its seven seasons on CBS, “Wife” attracted a good-sized, upscale audience and was nominated for 39 Emmys, winning five times. The Television Critics Assn. named the show outstanding drama in 2014. That same year, the Writers Guild of America gave its annual award to the Kings.
So why would CBS choose to run its high-profile spinoff on a pay channel that viewers can’t see unless they fork over $5.99 per month for the advertising-supported version or $9.99 commercial-free? According to those involved, it was an easy decision.
“I think once it got to a certain point in the development phase, we always conceived of it as a premium show,” says All Access President Marc DeBevoise, who spearheaded development of the subscription service for CBS. DeBevoise says that in the early days of All Access, which launched in fall 2014 — streaming only reruns of the existing CBS library and the occasional live event — “The Good Wife” was a top-3 rated show for the service, whereas its original episodes on CBS had been more like top 20 or 30.
“The users spoke,” DeBevoise said. “Let’s put it that way.”
“The Good Fight” takes full advantage of the creative freedom that accompanies premium channels, integrating some harsh language and occasional brief nudity, which are being edited out for the summer run on CBS. Left in place on All Access will be the Kings’ boundary-pushing storytelling, as when characters sometimes break the fourth wall, seeming to address viewers directly.
At times, the series’ third season, which concluded last month, goes even further, incorporating animated “Schoolhouse Rock”-type musical numbers to explain complex legal and social issues. One of these ditties dealt with internet censorship in China and embroiled the series in controversy when CBS, fearing international repercussions, refused to run the cartoon. After a tense standoff, during which the Kings threatened to leave the show in protest, it was decided the segment would be replaced with a title card announcing that it had been censored by CBS, thus ending the network contretemps with the historically collegial showrunners.
“We don’t like to be in a confrontational place with the people who pay us,” Robert King says. Michelle King, who proposed the eventual solution, agrees. “It was a good resolution to a fraught time,” she says. “They’ve actually been tremendously supportive.”
One area where they’ve gotten surprisingly little push back so far is in the vehement anti-Trump stance espoused by lead character Diane and her cadre of female resisters, who meet regularly to discuss how to get him out of office. While these scenes and others, such as Diane’s Season 2 decision to micro-dose hallucinogens to cope with what she sees as the president’s horrible behavior, are partly intended to tweak the hysteria exhibited by some progressives, the vitriol she displays against an actual, named politician — Trump — has rarely if ever been seen before on a network drama, even one with satirical flourishes.
“It’s a funny thing, because given the way we set up the character in ‘The Good Wife’ and how ardent a liberal she was, I think the show would’ve felt like a lie had we not had her as passionately upset as she is,” Michelle King says. “It would’ve felt as if it was a different character.”
The audience for the show will increase dramatically this summer from the roughly 4 million All Access subscribers who’ve been able to watch so far, but Julie McNamara, All Access’ executive vice president of original content, isn’t worried about a conservative backlash. “There will certainly be people who find it too this or too that,” she says, “but I think the one thing that you don’t want is for your creators to start feeling like they should do a show that is safe or is trying not to offend anybody. I think they’re doing the show that feels for them like it captures how destabilized many people feel right now in the culture.”
‘The Good Fight’
When: 9 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under age 17, with advisories for coarse language, sexual content and violence)