Why ‘The Good Fight’ is the best political drama of the Trump era: I got the liberals
Great American TV shows about politics – which should now include the legal drama Paramount+ “The Good Fight,” whose finale airs Thursday – tend to focus on liberals rather than conservatives. On TV scripts, the real partisan divide is where these liberals fall into the serious to cynical spectrum.
NBC’s “Parks and Reaction” and “The West Wing” were ambitious at their core, promoting the view that competent people of good will can defeat political deadlock to make the world a better place. It takes endless stamina and almost inhuman optimism to build a city park in Pawnee, Indiana, but bureaucrat Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) eventually outwits her libertarian boss and public comment saboteurs with other plans. President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) was relatively easy on the organized Washington that series creator Aaron Sorkin had imagined. Bartlett and his staff could simply use the powers of logic, persuasion, and personal virtue to win over – or at least embarrass – their conservative opponents.
Netflix’s “House of Cards” and HBO’s Veep and The Wire all carried darker views of American politics, with the winners being the Machiavellians who could best manipulate public power for personal gain. Congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) was a convincing character because he could play the political game so aptly; Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) was a compelling comedian because she couldn’t.
David Simon’s comprehensive movie “The Wire” was the bleakest ever, chronicling a corrupt system rather than the corrupt people who operate it. “Everyone stays friends, everyone gets paid, and everyone gets a future,” Det. Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) protests after prosecutors hesitate to confront a corrupt but well-connected defense attorney.
“The Good Fight,” which premiered in 2017, has become one of our most introspective political shows of the post-Trump era by veering between these poles of idealism and cynicism, vacillating over whether the series’ progressive lawyers might take the highway or bottom. Part of “The Good Wife”—which, like its predecessor, was set in one of Chicago’s largest law firms—”The Good Fight” regularly indulged in the credible legal procedural format of cases ripping off the headlines. But she did it to serve her real obsession: exploring the crisis of self-confidence that unleashed on liberals after the shocking election of Donald Trump in 2016.
The show’s central character, Diane Lockhart, played in a magnetic performance by Kristen Baransky, is a polished legal mind and a gentle operator of glass office politics. It is capable of meeting almost any crisis with a reaction little more than a slow, lizard-like blink of an eye—except when it begins to suspect that democracy and the rule of law are beginning to crumble under the onslaught of right-wing nationalism. Lockhart, ready to put the state over the family, repeatedly betrays the trust of her ardent husband, National Rifle Assn. Activist (Gary Cole). But deep down, Lockhart hardly knows what to cling to apart from her patriotism. She spends a lot of the series on hallucinogens.
The philosophical (and sensual) mystery at the center of “The Good Fight” is often played for laughs. The series is reckoned to be quite funny, animated by Agents of Chaos guest-appearing as the complicity of Democratic Party chief Eli Gould (Alan Cumming). But creators Michelle and Robert King’s publication of Surrealism has also been an effective way to illustrate liberals’ absolute loss of control, in multiple meanings of that word, following the rise of Trump, the transformation of the Supreme Court, and his supporters’ violent looting of governance. The US Capitol on January 6, 2021. It’s the kind of show in which the ghosts of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Frederick Douglass appear to characters with crises of conscience (or perception).
Exaggerated political violence is practically part of the “The Good Fight” group. Crowds with deliberately obscure alliances stumble on the streets below company offices, whose windows have been smashed by small arms fire from the latest potential killer. In their day-to-day jobs, progressive company lawyers may deal with an unqualified judicial appointment in one scene and dodge emboldened white nationalists in another.
On the side, multiple characters join rebel organizations that want to do what the Democratic Party or the legal system would not. Visual motifs from the 2017 white nationalist “Unite the Right” realistic rally are repeated throughout the series and are khaki and tiki reminders of the barbarian armies lurking in the confines of liberal tolerance. It is not a hidden show. But these are not exact times.
“The Good Fight” was never concerned with Trumpism itself, whose on-screen Republican avatars often appear as cartoonish chips for the anxious and confused progressives on the show. In a familiar trope from the “The Good Fight” season finale, prominent lawyers gather in a corner office, stare out a company window, assessing right-wing unrest that sees professionals and liberal institutions as enemies who should be swept away. “Everyone’s running there, doing God knows what,” partner Adrian Bosman (Delroy Lindo) said at the end of season one, then made a reassuring note: “The only constant is the law.”
“Do you still believe it?” Lockhart asks Boseman about a chaotic season later – this time drawing a remarkably hesitant “yes” response. “What does it matter if we are a nation of law if the laws are not just?” asks third partner Liz Reddick (Audra MacDonald). By season three, despair had set in. The only thing left for the democracy-loving lawyer to cling to is “love,” Lockhart told the now desperate Bozeman. and hope.”
But the “good fight” was both insidious and decisive for clinging to these kinds of piety. The series, which has at times veered into crazy adventures involving Trump’s legendary “urine tape” or the death in prison of financial predator Jeffrey Epstein, has always been on the cutting edge when misrepresenting the hypocrisy and systemic contradictions that plague liberal institutions from within. The company was founded by Riddick’s father, a civil rights legend who, after his death, discovered he was a sexual predator; Riddick investigates the results but hides the results. The arrival of white lawyers like Lockhart, who help boost the company’s business, led to an identity crisis as well as a rebellion over pay equality among the company’s left-wing employees. A proud feminist, Lockhart struggles with a proposal to put her career ahead in order to avoid the political embarrassment of becoming the white leader of a black company.
And while this company prides itself on doing good, it also likes to make good money – even if it means protecting unsavory but wealthy clients. In one of the series’ most righteous betrayals, Maya Rendell (Rose Leslie) is suing the estranged intern from Lockhart and accusing the company of withholding 60% of their clients’ awards in Chicago police brutality cases. “Why after us?” Lockhart asks, assuming a personal vendetta. “Because you got it wrong,” Maya replies, noting that the company was making more money from its exploited clients. “You had a conflict of interest, and yet the whole time, you were patting your back, thinking you were fighting a good fight.” ouch.
For most series, “The Good Fight” doesn’t provide answers about how liberals should respond when their beliefs and way of life are threatened. Wannabe heroes who hope to change the entire world—or who keep fighting just to fill some void within—risk hardly in aimless misery, or worse, inflicting pain on their kin. But in the end, the “good fight” keeps the faith. The show suggests that if the world changes for the better, it will come millimeter after millimeter, in grueling, infuriating, and chaotic human increments.
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