Courtrooms are a bit like outer space: strange, anodyne places where most of the laws of physics you’re used to on Earth do not apply. In court, no one talks the way they do in most other contexts. You’re at the mercy of fickle forces beyond your control. And the chairs you sit in to navigate it all look really uncomfortable. As decades of Star Trek shows have shown, TV writers can tell all sorts of stories about exploring outer space that are really not-so-secretly about the world around us. Star Trek writers frequently pivot to any flavor of TV that suits them: perhaps a mystery or Western one week, maybe a war story or hostage crisis the next, followed by an episode just really settling down into some hardcore diplomacy.
Legal dramas, meanwhile, explore the conflicts of modern society with a plainness that can make them easy to overlook. Distilling a conflict into a battle of courtroom oratory is absolute catnip for the dramatists and thespians TV writers may consider themselves to be. But the charms of a loud court battle still aren’t as eye-grabbing as the Borg, and the possibilities of a story without a warp engine seem limited, at least on a superficial level. Granted, good television can come from anywhere and be about anything. But legal-drama skeptics should consider The Good Fight, a legal drama with the reckless abandon of a Star Trek show at the top of its game, constantly trying new ideas, then abandoning them for better ones.
The Good Fight is technically a spinoff of The Good Wife, a CBS drama about a woman who returns to her career in law after her state-attorney husband is arrested and disgraced following a corruption and sex scandal. The Good Fight takes a very different tack, though: Set in 2016, the year of its debut, and roughly keeping with real time, the series follows wealthy liberal lawyer Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) after she discovers she’s the victim of a Ponzi scheme run by her financial adviser. In the fallout, Diane loses her savings, her cushy job as a named partner in her law firm, and her plan to retire in an Italian villa, safe from the political turmoil that would follow the election of Donald Trump. Instead, she’s forced to take a job at Reddick, Boseman, & Kolstad, a Black-owned law firm where her perspective isn’t given the weight she’s accustomed to. Things are different at this new firm, where lawyers are dedicated to running headfirst at modern social issues like police brutality and the alt-right.
As this summary suggests, The Good Fight wears its politics on its sleeve. (This is the first of several similarities to Star Trek.) It’s unabashedly liberal, but also admirably restless. No one character is always right — if a given episode even takes a side on an issue at all. Race is a central, ever-present theme, and throughout its run, each season of the show — which kicked off in 2016, and just concluded its fifth season in late August — is firmly set in the time it is released, as many of its episodes spin out of recent headlines, ranging from immigration enforcement overreach to the Capitol riot. Throughout, the show is sharply written, witheringly funny, and furiously paced, but what really makes it a joy to watch is the way it embraces the imaginative nature of good genre storytelling in its aim to deliver cogent stories about the world as it is now.
One of the remarkable things about The Good Fight is how every time an episode kicks off, you don’t really know what you’re going to see. While it lets the headlines inspire its stories, unlike Law & Order, it doesn’t play out the action procedurally. Instead, The Good Fight embraces a heightened reality, a world that’s almost like ours, but a little off. Maybe that surreal element comes from the absurd details, like Glee’s Jane Lynch showing up for a recurring role as an FBI agent who works out of an office where pigeons are constantly crashing against the window.
Or perhaps it’s embedded in the longer, more considered stories, likeseason 5’s ongoing story about Hal Wackner (Mandy Patinkin of Homeland and The Princess Bride), a self-appointed judge who runs a strange underground court where participants score points like in sports, and anyone who uses overwrought language has to wear a powdered wig. Or maybe it’s in the narrative quirks the show employs with little warning, like season 3’s habit of dispensing exposition via short Schoolhouse Rock-style animated musicals, performed by none other than Jonathan Coulton of Portal fame. A season or episode of The Good Fight feels like visiting a strange new world, one that’s eerie in its similarity to ours, but with just one small thing that’s different.
Like Star Trek at its best, The Good Fight is a TV show for people who really love TV, not just for its formal playfulness, but for the way it builds out a rich cast of supporting characters that are immediately twice as memorable as the lead characters on other shows. An episode of The Good Fight could suddenly pivot to follow a long-time background player or a new character, and build out a good episode of TV around either of them. This is the joy of the show: meeting characters like the effusively quirky Elsbeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston) or the deceptively spacey Allegra Durado (Wanda Sykes) and immediately being charmed by them, not knowing whether they’ll ever show up again, but being delighted when they do. (Or when, like Elsbeth, they turn out to be characters with rich histories from The Good Wife.)
In another crucial comparison to Star Trek, The Good Fight is openly trying to be about big, important ideas. And vitally, The Good Fight tackles those ideas in a way that seems to have been considered to the point where the writers are inviting disagreement. This is another one of the show’s quiet miracles: Because it’s so openly about political topics, its characters are forthright about their beliefs, and it allows the series to portray a whole universe of differing ideas within its overarching liberal worldview.
Viewers are free to place their sympathies where they wish — even if they profoundly disagree with, say, the third season’s ideas about “resistance” to the Trump presidency, or the effectiveness of building stories around real-world scandals involving the likes of Jeffrey Epstein and Roy Cohn. In other words, it’s a show that treats its audience in a remarkably adult fashion, while acknowledging that adults can contemplate heady ideas about systemic problems and have fun — or disagree — at the same time. Still, while Star Trek sold me on space a long time ago, The Good Fight will never convince me to go to a courtroom I don’t have to be in. As much as I enjoy watching the TV version, no show is that good.
The Good Fight is streaming all five seasons in their entirety on Paramount Plus, and has been renewed for season six.