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Review: ‘The Good Fight’ ‘can stand on its own’

Christine Baranski from the CBS series "The Good Wife" arrives at the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California August 25, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES -Tags: ENTERTAINMENT)(EMMYS-ARRIVALS) – RTR43Q0K

Early in the pilot episode of "The Good Fight," the CBS All Access spin-off of "The Good Wife," Diane (Christine Baranski) gives some advice to her goddaughter Maia (Rose Leslie), a new associate at her firm.

"People I thought with all my heart were guilty turned out to be innocent," she says. "And people I thought were saints? They weren’t. That’s why you don’t go on instinct. You wait, you listen and watch. Eventually everyone reveals themselves."

To a casual or non-viewer of the original series, it might seem like a requisite pep talk from the seasoned pro to the nave newbie, but any and all Good Wife fans will lick their lips at the delectable shade being thrown at our precious Saint Alicia (Julianna Margulies).

There are subtle and direct references like this — including two to Will (Josh Charles) — peppered throughout the pilot, making the transition seamless for "Good Wife" fans. Creators Robert and Michelle King’s unmistakable crisp pacing, dense yet efficient dialogue and dry humor, along with the sleek production design, gorgeous clothes and hot-button issues (the first case involves police brutality), will stoke comforting nostalgia too. But "The Good Fight" is very much a beast that can stand on its own.

The series takes place a year after The Slap Heard ‘Round the World, opening with Diane watching Donald Trump’s inauguration, a last-minute change following his election win. Still estranged but not divorced from Kurt (Gary Cole), she decides to retire from the firm — whose name has hilariously ballooned to Lockhart Deckler Gussman Lee Lyman Gilbert Lurie Kagan Tannenbaum & Assoc. after a three-way merger — to the south of France. There’s even a literal passing of a figurative torch from her to Maia, who has just passed the bar.

But both of their bright futures are torpedoed when Maia’s father and Diane’s longtime friend, Henry (Paul Guilfoyle), a hedge fund king, gets arrested for running a Ponzi scheme, zapping them of money, respectability and employability. There is one person willing to take a chance on them: Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo), who runs an all African-American firm where Lucca (Cush Jumbo) now works.

The set-up is not unlike "The Good Wife’s:" a woman — or in this case, two — forced to rebuild her life in the wake of a scandal she wasn’t responsible for, with Maia being the Alicia surrogate. But there’s a rawness and edge to "The Good Fight" — not just because of the Trump undercurrent or because they can curse and show butts now — that even the most brilliant, urgent episodes of "The Good Wife" didn’t have. Alicia’s privilege was challenged over seven seasons, but Diane and Maia are forced to confront theirs right off the bat as they become the "minorities" at their place of work, laying the groundwork for some fascinating, complex power dynamics and relationships. This is crystallized for Diane when Adrian explains why he doesn’t view her as "poison" and wants to bring her to the "right side of things." (Be warned: There are a lot of fighting metaphors.)

Baranski, who never won an Emmy for "The Good Wife" (she has one for Cybill), is still pitch perfect as Diane and finally gets the showcase she deserved but rarely got on the original series. And yes, hearing her spit out fiery F-bombs is just as amazing as you’ve always imagined. Jumbo and her death glares and epic eye rolls are back, with a bit of a chip on Lucca’s well-dressed shoulder. Lucca was one of "The Good Wife’s" better additions in its uneven later years, but she got sidelined into merely being an Alicia and Jason (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) shipper in the last half of the final season. The first two episodes of "The Good Fight" are not Lucca-centric by any means, but hint at what may have transpired between her and Alicia in the intervening year. And we know she’ll have a love life courtesy of Justin Bartha’s AUSA Colin later in the season.

The newbies fit right into the Kings’ world. Leslie finds a way to make her neophyte lawyer overwhelmed and determined but not grating. Lindo brings both a calmness and cheekiness to Adrian, reminiscent of Will. Erica Tazel plays Adrian’s assured partner Barbara Kolstad, who’s more cautious about Diane’s presence at their firm and is primed to go toe-to-toe with her if need be.

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There are only 10 episodes in the first season of "The Good Fight," which is a dream come true for the Kings, who have repeatedly bemoaned the 22-episode grind of network TV — to the point of making it the basis of their unsuccessful Emmy campaign in 2014 for "The Good Wife’s" peak fifth season. One hopes that they make the most of their wish granted to produce the focused, sharp stories we know they can instead of the weird, whiplash storytelling (among other problematic choices) that befell "The Good Wife," because "The Good Fight" has the potential to be great.

"The Good Fight" premieres Sunday on CBS before moving exclusively to CBS All Access. The show’s second episode will then debut the same night on the streaming service.

(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS.)

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