Usually, spinoffs built around supporting characters from one show involve them striking out on their own in a new place: Frasier goes to Seattle, Joey goes to Hollywood, Joanie and Chachi go to Chicago, etc. Sometimes, though, a spinoff is basically the original show, minus the original lead. When Andy Griffith wanted to stop playing Andy Taylor, the supporting cast stayed in place for what became Mayberry R.F.D.. Ditto Major Crimes after Kyra Sedgwick was ready to stop being The Closer, and the Valerie producers killing off Valerie Harper’s character during a salary dispute and ultimately renaming it The Hogan Family. It may lack the star power of the original version, but if the concept is basic enough (small-town silliness, police procedural, family comedy), the supporting characters popular enough, and the replacement lead at least adequate, it can extend a fictional universe’s lifespan a long time.
Now CBS is taking that approach with The Good Fight, a Good Wife spin-off minus the title character, but bringing back much of the ensemble, adding in a few new characters, sprinkling in echoes of Alicia Florrick whenever possible, and telling the exact same kinds of stories we got for seven seasons of the parent show.
It makes sense. The character of Alicia, and Julianna Margulies’ performance in that role, elevated The Good Wife at its best above wonky David E. Kelley-style legal proceduraldom, but the series had long since run out of new and fitting places to take Alicia. Her story lost steam, then kept going for another season or two — including a disappointing final episode — but the world around Alicia still had life in it, as demonstrated in the two Good Fight episodes sent to critics. It’s not fancy, it’s not revolutionary, and it’s not up to the level of peak Good Wife, but it’s a pop cultural itch successfully being scratched by Good Wife creators Robert and Michelle King and their new collaborator, Field of Dreams writer/director Phil Alden Robinson.
We pick up a year after the end of the original series. Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockhart, having successfully merged her law firm with two others — it says something about the Kings’ allergy to a dramatic status quo that there was at least one firm restructuring in between the two series — is preparing for a hard-earned retirement that includes a villa in Provence. Then a scandal hits, damaging both Diane and her goddaughter Maia Rindell (Rose Leslie, aka Ygritte from Game of Thrones), a first-year associate who had just started working at Diane’s firm, and the two are forced to take new jobs at a predominantly African-American firm run by Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo) and Barbara Kolstad (Erica Tazel from Justified), where Alicia’s ex-pal Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo) already works.
The Good Fight tries to split the New Alicia load between Diane and Maia, who are each dealing with personal and professional turmoil in a most public way, and even lets Lucca step in from time to time. There’s a scene where Lucca gives Maia advice that may as well come with the subtitle, “Well, this is what Alicia Florrick would be saying right here if Julianna wanted to do a cameo.” Alicia was more complicated than any of these three, but add them together and you get a functional approximation of the old show, with slightly different lighting, and, via the new firm, a different perspective on the kinds of social issues the Kings like to spotlight. But there are still wacky judges (Denis O’Hare returns as Judge Abernathy this time wearing prescription sunglasses, because Good Wife/Fight), and there are still unusual courtroom-style settings that one of our heroes has trouble understanding the rules of (Maia is thrown by her first appearance in front of an arbitrator), and there are still so many references to technology and social media that you have to assume an angel gets its wings each time someone says “metadata.”
For all that the Kings used to lament the restrictions they had to deal with in making a prestige drama for a broadcast network rather than cable or streaming, there are only two major differences that come as a result of The Good Fight being made for the CBS All Access streaming service(*). The first is that each season will only have 10 episodes rather than 22, requiring less filler(**). The second is that the characters can now curse. Which they do. A lot. It can be startling at first to hear Diane Lockhart hurling around F-bombs, but this isn’t some Darkness At Noon-style grim and gritty affectation; when she or anyone else starts cussing, it’s in a circumstance where it wold almost feel more distracting if they used tamer language.
(*) The first episode will debut on CBS proper on Sunday night at 8, and both it — in a longer version with franker language — and the second episode will be available on All Access on the same night. Ensuing episodes will debut each Sunday.
(**) Even though the single best creative stretch in Good Wife history was a direct result of a filler episode, when season 4’s “Red Team Blue Team” led the Kings to realize the show was better when Alicia was working against Diane and Will rather than with them.
And by going from the familiar confines of CBS to the strange new world of All Access, The Good Fight gets to be a more traditional kind of spin-off at the same time it’s going the Major Crimes route. Alicia Florrick was always able to survive, and even thrive, no matter the circumstance she found herself in; will this show about her former colleagues be able to do the same in a cord-cutter universe, where consumers of this kind of Quality Drama already have plenty of other subscription options? CBS chairman Leslie Moonves reportedly said that All Access already has 1.5 million subscribers, despite a sketchy back catalog. (Many of their library shows are available on other services, and some of the ones that aren’t are incomplete; there are only 50 out of 114 episodes of Taxi, for instance with nearly all the classic ones missing.)
Can The Good Fight succeed financially in this new unbundled environment? That’s maybe a matter for the gang at Chumhum to figure out, but creatively, it’s a satisfying return to the world, freed of the Florrick baggage that made the final Good Wife days less exciting, even if her absence seems to limit the new show’s overall ceiling.
When Maia is feeling particularly full of despair at her circumstances, Diane suggests she get up and follow her.
“Why?” Maia asks.
“Because it’s not over yet,” Diane tells her.
The Good Wife is over, but her friends still have some fight left in them.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com