Almost everyone I know is either watching, or denying they watch Love Island. I belong to the deniers because I’ve been following instead what I think is the most interesting reality (or should that be surreality?) show around at the moment – the American legal drama, The Good Fight.
Just finished its third season, The Good Fight is a spin-off from a successful parent show, a notoriously risky venture in the world of TV. (Remember Joey, starring Matt LeBlanc which followed the actor character from the mega-successful Friends to a new life in LA. No? I rest my case.)
The Good Fight sprang from The Good Wife, a long-running, traditional legal procedural, a celebrity vehicle for Julianna Marguilies (Nurse Carol Hathaway in ER), who played Alicia Florrick, a stay-at-home mother forced to return to the workplace when her Chicago state’s attorney husband Peter (Chris Noth) is jailed over a sex and corruption scandal.
Christine Baranski was a stalwart in that series. She played seasoned lawyer Diane Lockhart, a partner in the firm Alicia Florrick joins as a 40-something legal newbie. But it was essentially a sidekick role, despite the oomph Baranski brought to it.
The Good Wife was solid, dependable drama. Plenty of courtroom action, a rather cloying unrequited love sub-plot, a smattering of dirty politics, and lots of legal horse-trading. So far, so predictable. It ran for seven seasons before dying of exhaustion and the news that there was going to be a spin-off was greeted with some trepidation. Especially by Marguilies’ fans.
That it would be built around the character of Diane Lockhart was encouraging. This was a bold move. Not that Baranski doesn’t have the acting chops to carry a series – she’s an Emmy and Tony-awarded performer (she sings and dances, as well as acts – starring in both Mamma Mias, for example). No, the risk was founding an entire series on a female character in her late 60s. (Baranski is 67).
Furthermore, Diane Lockhart is a conservative feminist, in a strangely loose marriage with a right-wing Republican (played by Gary Cole) who does not share her political views, and she works at a predominantly African-American law firm where her white privilege is constantly being challenged.
But in its three seasons The Good Fight has grown away from its middle-brow TV roots, and morphed into something else entirely. I’m not even sure what genre it is now. Quasi-fictional? Auto-fictional? Semi-documentary?
The Good Fight has inherited its predecessor’s template of riffing on the headlines for its storylines, featuring #MeToo type sexual predation charges, a Bernie Madoff-style financial scam and Internet privacy challenges among its cases, along with a good dose of office politics. But that’s where the similarity ends. The clue’s in the title. Fighting the good fight is about trying very hard to do the right thing in trying circumstances.
That’s Diane Lockhart’s goal. And the trying circumstances? Being a good citizen in the middle of a Trump presidency. Trump is constantly name-checked in this series. Barely a scene goes by where he’s not present, if only by implication. One episode suggests First Lady Melania Trump has approached the firm via a proxy looking for a divorce. Another concerns possession of an incriminating video involving Russian prostitutes and urination. Often the president’s name doesn’t even have to be invoked for the viewer to get the drift.
The creators have all but jettisoned the romantic entanglements of their key characters – is this a reflection on the late middle age of the show’s heroine? – and scaled down much of the courtroom action. Instead they show us Diane and her colleagues battling the contradictions of living in the Trump era as committed liberals and/or Democrats (these are Chicago lawyers, after all.)
So, for example, in the third season, Diane’s frustration with Trump sees her joining a radical women’s resistance group which sets out, by fair means or foul, to undermine POTUS electoral dominance by filing false SWAT call-outs (one of which gets a White House aide killed) hacking electronic voting machines and engaging in the black arts of false news.
“The difficulty doesn’t come from weaving real life politics in, it comes from not weaving it in,” series creator Michelle King told Variety magazine last month. “Every day the writers’ room gets together and talks about what they’ve been reading and seeing in the news the day before and frankly what they find the most shocking and can’t turn their eyes away from. Given that it’s a group obsession, it’s a very natural flow from that to the show.”
As a result, The Good Fight has dropped all pretence of being a fiction. So closely does it stick to its political inspiration that the viewer is constantly playing who’s who with the cast. Is Diane’s on-again/off-again marriage with right-wing ballistics expert Kurt McVeigh (now working for the Trump administration) based on White House adviser Kellyanne Conway’s relationship with her husband, George T Conway? ( Mr Conway is a distinguished lawyer who was once in the running to be US solicitor general, but is now an outspoken critic of the Trump administration which he has likened to “a shitshow in a dumpster fire”.) Swap the gender roles and the similarities with Kurt and Diane are inescapable.
Another innovation the show has adopted is the insertion of animated musical shorts into the narrative to underline episode themes. There have been skits on non-disclosure agreements, Russian troll farms and Chinese media censorship (more of this later).
These memes function as visual thought bubbles. The action and the characters are paused mid-scene while the viewers are given a short dose of agit-prop. Trouble is, they are often not as witty as the satirical live action scripts. That said, it is refreshing to see a middle-aged, middle-brow TV drama dropping the fourth wall, stretching the visual vernacular and being really playful with form.
Ironically, the shorts have turned out to be more than mere technical gimmickry. One of them recently became a news story itself. Entitled “Banned in China”, the segment was due to be inserted into an episode about the human cost of Chinese government censors until CBS pulled the plug. Where the meme should have run, a placard appeared reading ‘CBS Has Censored This Content’. Initially, viewers thought this was part of an in-show joke until the New Yorker broke the story.
Responding, show runners, Robert and Michelle King threatened to pull out of the series, then insisted that the placard would have to air for the full 90 seconds that the segment would have taken. In the end they compromised on eight and half seconds.
It’s just one more example of the blurred lines between fact and fiction that the show has engendered. The closer its storylines get to “reality”, the more, it seems, reality bites.
In fact, the “reality” component of The Good Fight is so persuasive that it’s the fictional conceits that seem outlandish. British actor Michael Sheen has been chewing the scenery of late as fantasist attorney Roland Blum who cites Roy Cohn, political fixer and Trump influencer as a role model. Maverick oddball Blum creates havoc in the plush, politically correct environs of Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart. But the drama seemed over-egged and Sheen too over-the-top. In its willed eccentricity, his performance seemed to belong to another show altogether – the ridiculous antics of Ally McBeal, the 90s manifestation of the TV legal drama.
It’s as if the producers were trying to distract us from the “reality” The Good Fight is desperately trying to immerse us in – with some really camp fiction.
Or maybe it’s all of a piece and I just can’t tell the difference anymore?
Or maybe that’s the whole the point?