Four years ago, Netflix changed the definition of television and shook up the medium by creating quality original content.
Now CBS is hoping to return the favor. With the debut Sunday of “The Good Fight,” the network is betting that traditional content providers can compete in the streaming business — and with politically charged programming, besides.
A spin-off of the CBS hit “The Good Wife,” “The Good Fight” is clearly courting fans of the original — “Fight” revolves around Christine Baranski’s beloved Diane Lockhart — while also trying to coax them onto a new viewership platform.
CBS made the early decision to put “The Good Fight,” from “The Good Wife” creators Robert and Michelle King, on CBS All Access, a subscription streaming service. When the first of 10 episodes becomes available Sunday, it will serve as a test of whether a legacy media giant can partly reinvent itself as a digital upstart.
“What we’re trying to do here is address the fact that the waters we’re swimming in have changed overnight,” said Robert King,
“In several ways,” he added.
Indeed, “The Good Fight” is making a brave new leap in function as well as form.
When they conceived of the new show, the Kings imagined a glass-ceiling tale that tracked closely with what they assumed was an impending Hillary Clinton presidency.
But the election of Donald J. Trump caused them to scrap as much as three-quarters of what they’d written for the program.
The series now opens with Diane — an avowed Democrat and shrewd but idealistic attorney whose office sports a photo of herself with Clinton — watching the Trump inauguration in disbelief. Future episodes cover topics as timely as fake news, a Milo Yiannopoulos-like figure and hand-wringing at an African American law firm over how to represent a Trump-supporter client.
What had been a character study with a subtle political backdrop has morphed — significantly. “The Good Fight” is arguably the first piece of scripted entertainment crafted in the age of, and heavily influenced by, a Trump presidency — with all the attendant advantages and pitfalls.
On a soundstage in an industrial section of Brooklyn on a recent afternoon, the cast and crew were diving into the deep end. They had torn down and rebuilt “The Good Wife” set for this new era. The vibe of the Julianna Margulies-led late-aughts/early teens show about a woman rebounding from her politico husband's sex scandal has been replaced by that of a primarily African American law firm that specializes in police-brutality lawsuits. Diane has a new job at that firm — brought in by latter-day “Good Wife” character Lucca (Cush Jumbo) — and finds herself tackling cases specific to the Trump era.
On this day, cameras rolled around an ersatz courtroom where Diane and her protégé, Maia (Rose Leslie), sat in the gallery during a financial-corruption trial centering on Maia’s father — with the Platinum Partners scandal brewing, another touch fresh from the headlines.
“I wish I could tell you it’ll get easier,” Diane whispers to Maia in one of several lines of dialogue that work at both character and mood-of-the-country levels.
“I wish you could tell me that too,” Maia whispers back.
Taking a break in her dressing room several minutes later, Baranski reflected on the real-time roller coaster of making a show like this.
“I remember shooting a scene in which Diane is holding up the picture of her and Hillary. It was just before the election, and I said to the director ‘You’re looking at the next president of the United States.’ Then a little while later we were reshooting the beginning of the series.”
In that opening, Baranski's character was forced to start from scratch after personal struggles. Baranski said even that premise echoed the national moment.
“This is a story about a character figuring out: How do you get your footing when there’s no foundation?” she said. “And I think that’s rather where we are psychically as a country.”
Of course, such anxiety presupposes a certain political bent and ignores the large swaths of the country — many of them likely CBS viewers too — heartened by a Trump presidency.
Michelle King believes the show can simultaneously have a point of view and not alienate segments of the audience. “Rather than thinking about this as an overtly political show, these are characters who have always been political, just now thrust in to this new climate,” she said.
Added Robert King, “And it’s not all about people who are anti-Trump — it’s about the left driving itself insane by conspiracies too.”
American cultural division isn’t the only hurdle “The Good Fight” faces. The news cycle in the Trump era moves fast. Even a quick-reaction series like this one — the Kings work so down to the wire that actors often get scripts just days before shooting — could be outdated by the time an episode gets online.
The Kings said solving this problem meant figuring out which Trump stories would stick; the so-called Muslim travel ban, for instance, was “burning so hot” they feared it would flame out before release.
“You look for longer-term cultural stories based on Trump — things like the anarchist spirit that’s matching up with Breitbart-ism, a marriage of the extreme left and extreme right,” said Robert King. “All that’s in the mixer of a how a culture under a Democratic president, well-embraced by the left to one extremely hated by the left.”
One episode has already been a casualty of the shifting news cycle: a show based on the news about Nate Parker, the director of “The Birth of a Nation,” brought low by a sexual-assault scandal, was scrapped when the movie lost Oscar heat.
David Stapf, the president of CBS Television Studios, which is producing “The Good Fight,” said neither the speed nor the topicality worried the company. “The Kings are deft at making those turns and adjustments,” he said. “We also have a lot more freedom doing it this [streaming] way.”
The platform does offer certain advantages, like being looser — slightly — with language and length restrictions.
Still, alternative distribution poses challenges. Not least among them is how to get “Good Wife” and CBS viewers, which skew older and linear, to pay for a digital service. (All Access costs either $5.99 or $9.99 a month, depending on the plan.)
“Millions and millions of people watched ‘The Good Wife,’” said Marc DeBevoise, president and chief operating officer of CBS Interactive. “We don’t need to get those numbers — even if we get a small percentage of them, we’ll be good.”
In that sense, platform and politics are aligned: Because “The Good Fight” doesn’t need to cater to everybody, its ideology doesn’t need to be for everybody either.
Jumbo says she finds the questions about whether CBS can go Netflix-hip a little overblown.
“Yes, people on the street and subway and elevator — older people who were part of the original ‘Good Wife’ demographic — ask me how to watch it, and I do have to explain it to them. But after the first episode everyone will figure it out.” She added, “Things are moving so fast. Being on cable or being on network doesn’t matter — in five years’ time we’ll be laughing at all these different names.”
Just the same, CBS is hedging its streaming bets. It has mounted a large TV ad campaign and is even airing the first episode on the network simultaneous with its release online. The presence of commercials and the decision against releasing all episodes at once are other ways they haven’t gone full Netflix. The first two episodes will go online Sunday; the remaining eight will be made available only at a rate of one a week.
All Access is being monitored closely not just by CBS, which has a new “Star Trek” series debuting on the service later this year, but other broadcast networks that wonder if they too can or should launch an online-original business.
And of course it’s being watched by those who want to know how political they can go with their TV dramas.
Creators are seeking to remain upbeat about that shift too. “People say polarization isn’t good for writers. But polarization, I think, can give shape to a show,” Robert King said. “When Trump was elected it gave us a direction. It gave meaning to all the decisions we were making.”
‘The Good Fight’
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Where: CBS All Access
When: Anytime, new episodes 5 p.m., Sundays
Rating: TV-14-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)
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