Few scripted series have rooted their premises so thoroughly in (opposition to) Trump’s presidency as “The Good Fight,” a progressive cri de coeur that began with its protagonist, the patrician feminist Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), starting a second chapter in her white-shoe career after her fortune is wiped out by a Ponzi scheme. Diane quickly finds a renewed sense of purpose in the law as a vehicle toward justice, hence the drama’s hypnotic opening credits, featuring the accoutrements of her former existence — handbags, wine bottles and conference-call phones, and, more recently, images of the former president — blowing up in slow motion.
The current fifth season, then, undoubtedly found creators Robert King, Michelle King and Phil Alden Robinson at a crossroads: If “The Good Fight” was no longer about fury at Trump and the struggle to do something constructive with all that rage, what was it about? After all, even its strongest elements seemed inspired by, or at least that much more compelling because of, the preceding occupant of the Oval Office.
As I’ve previously argued, “The Good Fight” is the only show able to out-surreal the Trump presidency — a feat the writers seemed to relish in, for example, by introducing a gonzo Roy Cohn figure (played by Michael Sheen) or “swatting” a Stephen Miller analogue in a left-wing terrorist protest against separating children from their parents at the border.
But “The Good Fight” was surprisingly introspective, too, always questioning the limits of Diane’s White feminism, especially within a predominantly Black workplace — a theme that gained new urgency during the Trump years, when Black, trans and other women belonging to minority groups ramped up their challenges to a larger feminist movement that, historically and now, has primarily benefited rich, White, straight women. (For a more online version of this phenomenon, see: the rise of the “Karen.”) All this existential Sturm und Drang on Diane’s part wasn’t for brooding’s sake alone; it was about the necessity of asking how to become a better person while pushing the world to become a saner and more humane place, or at the very least not letting the country’s more transparent corruption corrupt her.
Recent TV history has no shortage of shows that floundered after running through their original premises, including “Killing Eve” and “Big Little Lies.” But if “The Good Fight’s” creative team was ever flummoxed about which direction to go after Trump, little of that disorientation shows after the season premiere. (Titled “Previously On…,” that opening chapter inelegantly — I think on purpose, to re-create the chaos of 2020? — rushes through send-offs for Lindo and Jumbo, while speeding through what the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death and Joe Biden’s election meant for the characters.)
Thankfully, the Kings’ unparalleled knack for topicality has confidently steered Season 5 toward where we are in 2021: largely done with Trump the man (for now), but certainly not his influence. Based on the first four episodes and interviews with the creators, the events of Jan. 6 will cast a shadow over the rest of the season, pitting Diane (spoiler alert!) against her conservative husband Kurt (Gary Cole), who, according to Thursday’s installment, unwittingly facilitated at least one insurrectionist’s participation in the attack on the Capitol.
Despite Kurt and Diane being one of the great romances on TV today, the writers have used Cole sparingly on the show. Kurt believes in civil society and therefore isn’t so far gone as to support the events of Jan. 6, but this new story line does finally bring to the fore the central question about their marriage: whether Diane loves her husband more than she distrusts what he’ll do for his political convictions.
But the Season 5 story line that may capture the current moment even better is one that appears to be purely fictional. Most of “The Good Fight” (and “The Good Wife”) took place in a court system that was depicted as mostly rational, if heavily politicized and chock full of quirky arbiters. But this new season takes a populist ax to the legal system’s elitism, with self-appointed Judge Wackner (Mandy Patinkin) setting up his courtroom behind a copy shop — complete with a scoreboard on which lawyers rack up points mid-trial in front of an applauding audience — as a protest against the deep pockets and artificial pretenses necessary to go through the official channels. And at the end of each case, to counter the adversarial nature of the trial system, the plain-spoken judge orders the defendants and plaintiffs to tell each other, “I respect and I love you.”
Diane sees Judge Wackner’s experiment as a harmless nuisance at best, but he insists his version of court is a preview of “the future,” adding, “justice is only just if it’s available to everyone.” It’s the kind of larkish story line that “The Good Fight” does like no other show: one that reflects, with a painful accuracy and an utter lack of self-seriousness, the ways that our institutions fail most of us every day. But Judge Wackner also embodies the tendency of today’s version of populism to turn reform into spectacle and entertainment. The rest of the season will bear witness as to whether his common-sense approach can withstand many more refugees from the legal system — and fix America in the process.
Season 5 of “The Good Fight” (10 episodes) airs Thursdays on Paramount Plus.