In the new season of Horny Legal Battle—er, sorry, The Good Fight—assistant U.S. attorney Liz Reddick-Lawrence (Audra McDonald), in hot water after a tweet calling President Trump a white supremacist, resigns her position by writing “I quit” on her father’s funeral program and handing it to her boss. Her soon-to-be colleague at Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart, Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), begins micro-dosing the psilocybin she scores from the reception’s barkeep. A pair of murders rocks Chicago’s white-glove firms, as does the first perpetrator’s command to “Kill all lawyers!” There are doctored recordings, dubious statements, reality TV stars, and at least one bounce house, which investigator-in-training Marissa Gold (scene-snatcher Sarah Steele) uses to strike up an important conversation. As Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo) says to her client and co-worker, Maia Rindell (Rose Leslie), referring to audio of the latter’s Ponzi-scheming, fed-fleeing father engaging in phone sex, “This is too obviously provocative. This was created to hurt you, to make you react.” Then again, this is a series in which the title sequence features only explosions, of gavels, laptops, handbags, decanters, telephones, and high-heeled pumps. In The Good Fight, there’s no such thing as “too obviously provocative.” There is only “just provocative enough.”
Despite the fact that it’s built around Maia’s involvement in the case against her father—Jane Lynch’s prosecutor spends much of the season premiere chirping at her silent quarry, before Maia, rather deliciously, uses the woman’s blazer to dry her hands—The Good Fight struggles, following the template set by The Good Wife, with effective serialization. (Remember Kalinda’s abusive ex? God, that subplot was awful.) But creators Michelle and Robert King and Phil Alden Robertson understand character, almost preternaturally so: The sight of Diane in the season’s second episode, angling for a client at a heating oil depot in a white fur and black sunglasses, says more about her—glamorous, but tenacious; elegant, but not (too) stuck up—than reams of dialogue ever could. The same goes for Marissa’s perfect invitation to Maia, from the third: “You can come to my house for Pesach this year,” she says, toeing the line between sly and sincere before tipping toward her usually arid wit. “We’ll even hide a few Easter eggs for you.”
That line is where The Good Fight locates its purest, giddiest ecstasies, leading those at my biweekly viewing parties to hoot and holler as if it were a football game, or a form of church. (For queers like me, a TV series that contains the come on, “I’m gay and like canning, too. We should meet up,” might as well be church, to be honest.) As with its predecessor, The Good Fight is a habit-forming blend of politics, pop culture, humor, and high tech rolled into the silky cigarette of a legal procedural, and it’s the fact that none of these elements manages to dominate for long that seems to be the secret to the Kings’ inimitable recipe. In Season Two, for instance, the murders of two Chicago lawyers by their own clients sets Diane on edge—or is it the wider tumult of Trump’s presidency, which she still gawps at in disbelief 408, 415, 422 days in? The net tightens around Maia, threatening to send the series in a more solemn direction, and then her mother (played by Bernadette Peters) turns up in court claiming someone misheard “Vail” as “jail.” (Reader, I LOL’d.) Office politics come to the fore, supplanted by the always timely case of the week—in the third episode, it involves allegations of sexual assault on a reality show called Chicago Penthouse—supplanted in turn by an out-of-left-field twist, a semi-romantic detour, and some sharp TV criticism—The Good Wife’s “prestigious” punching bag, Darkness at Noon, enjoys an acerbic reprise—before returning, on the episode’s final beat, to office politics. It’s like that karaoke Wheel of Fortune that Justin Theroux’s character spins in The Leftovers, except the choices are all TV tropes and the player is a TV show: The Good Fight is game for anything, and that’s why it’s so damn fun.
It’s not, mind you, as astute or compelling as The Good Wife was in its halcyon days—most especially its remarkable fifth season, in which the series managed to transform the network drama into a sexy, swift-moving, highly topical, ultimately heartbreaking 22-episode thriller about professional ambition and its personal consequences. Still, The Good Fight doubles down with such supreme confidence on what made its forebear tick—the frantic energies of David Buckley’s score; the rotating stable of unforgettable guest stars; the unconscionably funny dialogue; the understanding that the line between sly and sincere can feel like a cliff, and the rather fearless attempt to court the abyss anyway—that it might be read as The Good Wife concentrate, to be watered down with wine and pizza at viewing parties rather than binged before bed.
Streaming might free the Kings from certain of The Good Wife’s “constraints”—re: nudity and F-bombs, for instance—but in the end both series share the same DNA, the same foundational belief, as The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum suggests of Jane the Virgin, that there is no such thing as a “guilty pleasure.” The Good Fight’s main provocation, in its send-up of Darkness at Noon, its combustible opening credits, its combination of serious subjects into an intoxicatingly unserious brew, is of the viewer, or perhaps the critic. As Marissa points out to the firm’s main investigator, Jay (Nyambi Nyambi), in an upcoming episode, Chicago Penthouse—its conventions, its broad appeal, its avid fan base—is no different from football or horror movies or comic books, except that comic books have been rebranded “graphic novels,” a form of “literature,” while reality remains firmly under the umbrella of “trash,” of TV. In this, The Good Fight remains true to the spirit of The Good Wife, even as its platform, its political milieu, its pop culture references—hell, the very nature of the medium—have changed. It might not be illegal, exactly, but it’s definitely something of a renegade, refusing to apologize for its gleeful excesses. If there’s one thing I’ve learned getting my unofficial JD at the school of Michelle and Robert King, it’s that guilt, like pleasure, is in the eye of the beholder: Within the boundaries of the law, do whatever gets you off.
New episodes of The Good Fight premiere Sundays on CBS All Access.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.