Our writers nominate the TV series keeping them entertained during a time of COVID.
Ever since The West Wing premiered in 1999, American television has loved series based on presidential politics. One could now spend months working through programs like Veep or Graves on streaming services. Rather like doctors and lawyers, politicians have become the basis for white collar TV series.
During the daily dramas of last year’s Trump campaign, television needed to do more than offer realism; the earnest liberalism of The West Wing felt oddly outdated amidst the realities of COVID, Black Lives Matter and the 2020 elections. What was needed was a television version of magic realism, able to speak to the events of the day but in ways that went beyond the documentary.
There are few politicians in The Good Fight, but it remains the most interesting American political series of the past few years. A spin off from The Good Wife —which did have a politician as a central figure, it’s a legal drama set in an African-American law firm in Chicago headed by Liz (Audra McDonald) and Diane (Christine Baranski). That Diane is white, and married to a gun-loving Republican, becomes an on-going issue for the firm.
The fifth series of The Good Fight begins with a survey of 2020, in which COVID — “that thing from China” — the murder of George Floyd and the elections take centre stage.
Viewers of earlier episodes will recognise some of the main characters, although each series introduces new players. This one gives a starring role to Mandy Patinkin as the fake Judge Wackner.
Increasingly, the drama plays out in his parallel court, which dispenses the sort of immediate and sensible justice that the corrupt and choked systems of Cook County, including Chicago, fail to do.
The idea of an unofficial court is already a television staple — Judge Judy Scheindlin’s move into reality television comes to mind — but here high mindedness develops into disillusion and ultimately disaster: watch the last episode to see how the series blends reality and fiction.
I watched the most recent episodes of The Good Fight during the latest Melbourne lockdowns, curious whether the sense of outrage at Trump that fuelled so many of the previous series would diminish. But the divisions in the United States that became so marked in the past four years have not gone away, and the series reminds us that despite his rhetoric, Biden has failed to bring the country together.
If anything, the show suggests that the political and cultural faultlines are solidifying. Over the past two years the show has become oddly bizarre, rather as if the writers of The X Files have wandered into the studios of Robert and Michelle King, the writers and producers of both The Good Wife and The Good Fight.
Their scripts take off from the news headlines and wander into fantasy, but fantasy that seems an acute harbinger of actual events.
The Good Fight stands out for sheer inventiveness, a willingness to take chances that rarely exists in American television dramas. Diane seeks advice from the ghost of Ruth Bader Ginsberg; the firm’s investigator, Jay (Nyambi Nyambi) hears the voices of Frederick Douglas, Karl Marx and Christ.
The show espouses unapologetically progressive politics, but it does so without becoming didactic and at times with remarkable humour (you will need to go back to earlier series to see its skewering of Trump).
It is most challenging in the inclusion of sympathetic characters from the right, such as Diane’s husband (Gary Cole), who may or may not have been implicated in the riots at the Capitol, and the black Republican lawyer, Julius Cain (Michael Boatman), who is imprisoned after a false accusation of bribery, and then pardoned by Trump.
The personal is political
That the personal is the political is evident in Diane’s struggles, both with her right-wing husband and with her colleagues who increasingly question how an African-American law firm can have a white woman as one of their named partners.
If I have an unease with the way the series has developed it is that too much of it revolves around Diane, possibly because Baranski along with Marissa Gold (Sarah Steele) is the only major character to have survived the transition from The Good Wife.
I’ve now spent eight years of my life in the US, having first gone there as a callow graduate student when Lyndon Johnson was president. Like so many other Australians, I fell in love with the country, and my career has been largely shaped by it.
Yet the more I’ve visited, the more foreign it becomes. The Good Fight is exhilarating entertainment and a grim warning of what the US could become.