Sunday’s episode of “The Good Fight” was a case of what can happen when a ripped-from-the-headlines episode gets meta.
The latest chapter of the CBS All Access legal drama, which is a spinoff of “The Good Wife,” featured the show’s central law firm agreeing to represent a television writer being sued by the network whose show he used to write on.
Why, exactly? Well, that’s when things got meta.
In the story, a TV writer leaks to the web an episode he wrote that was inspired by the pre-election scandal that followed multiple woman accusing Donald Trump of sexual assault. The writer — from “one of those Chicago shows,” attorney Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo) tells her boss, Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) — had been frustrated by multiple network delays in airing the episode.
If that sounds a little familiar, that’s because it is. NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” had a similar Trump-inspired episode, titled “Unstoppable,” that has been in limbo for months.
“The Good Fight” episode is a wink to “Law & Order: SVU” creator Dick Wolf, who has a franchise of shows set in Chicago on NBC.
“Unstoppable” featured a Trump-like character, played by Gary Cole (a familiar face on “The Good Fight,” as Lockhart’s husband), who is running for office. His campaign becomes mired after women come forward with damaging accusations.
The episode, originally set to air Oct. 26, 2016 — two weeks before election day — has been postponed several times and likely won’t make it to air, although Wolf hinted at the Television Critics Assn. in January that the installment could air in the spring.
In “The Good Fight” episode, titled “Stoppable: Requiem for an Airdate,” wife-and-husband showrunners Michelle and Robert King put their own twist on the situation.
In their story, the writer posts the episode online as a form of protest, which prompts the network’s lawsuit against him. His lawyers Quinn, Lockhart and Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo) argue that the network caved, fearing the Trump administration would use the FCC to punish the network. That argument is given weight when Trump congratulates the network — on Twitter — for standing up to the writer.
We spoke to the Kings about the episode.
When did you decide you wanted to tackle this subject matter?
Robert King: I think it was January, early January. It was inspired by the “Unstoppable” episode of “Law & Order: SVU.” And I think we were looking at each other, there was almost the sound of a light bulb going off like, oh, this can be something for our show. It was about a week after that where it started coming together, and we thought the way into it would be that the writer posted it online.
What did you feel this subject matter allowed you to explore? What about it felt ripe for storytelling?
Michelle King: There’s always a concern that there might be a chilling effect with this present administration. We have not seen the “SVU” episode, so it’s not as though we were inspired by that particular episode. But the goings on around it, made you have to wonder. It isn’t specific to any one network. It could happen anywhere, theoretically.
Robert King: We’re very aware of what goes into an episode of TV and how many people are working together to get something done. So, then, to not have it shown, I would imagine the moralizing for those people involved — both creating it and writing it. Another reason we wanted to do it: There’s something structurally fun and unique about this meta-quality of a show that’s doing the same thing that is being satirized in the show-within-the-show. It’s a ripped-from-the-headlines episode about a ripped-from-the-headlines episode. It seems like it takes meta to a fun area.
What were the conversations like in the writers room about the idea of censorship and free speech?
Robert King: One thing I remember is there was a cautiousness about the episode only because we expected the second episode of “The Good Fight” to be inspired by the Nate Parker situation and we went all the way to writing the script, and then it felt like “Birth of a Nation” wasn’t going to have the presence at the Academy Awards that had been expected, so we kind of had to throw it overboard and started over again.
(Parker was the writer-director-star of “Birth of a Nation’ about slave Nat Turner. He became embroiled in a controversy before the film’s release after the revelation that he had been accused of raping a woman when they both attended Penn State in the late 1990s. He was found not guilty).
When you’re playing off something current, there’s always a worry that events will overtake or something else will happen or there will be a lack of interest by the time it comes out. There was a cautiousness in general regarding the legal stuff. Our lawyers in the writers room are very interested in some of the issues involving copyright and what is fair use — some of those maybe more inside- baseball aspects of entertainment law. And then we talked with our entertainment lawyer, Jon Moonves. There was a lot of calling around to figure out what would happen in this situation.
How did the story evolve from conception to execution? Take anything out?
Robert King: There was no CBS dictate to take out anything.
Michelle King: What we hoped would be on the screen actually is on the screen. You’re seeing the intention.
You say CBS didn’t tell you to take anything out, but was there any concern from the start about how to approach it or whether it would be viewed as taking a shot at NBC?
Robert King: There was enough worry on my part about what is crossing that line. There’s worries all the time of, “Oh, they’re not going to allow us to do that.” At a certain point, you feel like an 8-year-old kid being told you can’t do that. But CBS has not been that way with us. They have been very collaborative.
Michelle King: They obviously read the script and were aware of the area we were going to be exploring. But, no, they were certainly fine with it all.
Have you heard from Dick Wolf? Do you expect to hear from him?
Michelle King: I cannot imagine that we will be hearing from Mr. Wolf or anyone else over there. He’s certainly made his whole living twisting reality to suit his fictional needs, so I’m sure if anyone understands, it’s him.
Robert King: And this episode is not a criticism of the creator or showrunner. I would love to see the episode. Maybe we can compel him to release the episode.
And as if things weren’t meta enough: Gary Cole, who reprises his role on “The Good Fight” as Diane’s husband, is the Trump-inspired politician in the “SVU” episode.
Michelle King: Yeah, that was a happy accident. It made us smile. We never discussed the episode.
“The Good Fight” has made regular references to Trump. Do you feel you had more freedom to go there because the show is on a streaming platform? Could you have done as much of it if it were on CBS proper?
Michelle King: We were never told to shy away from political issues when we were on the network. I don’t know if that particular piece of it would be different.
Robert King: The only thing that’d be different is there’s a certain language that’s appropriate. Like our next episode, that deals with the alt-right movement and censorship on social media — that one I don’t think we could have aired on network TV. It involves too many things we have to be frank about.