'The Good Fight' Review: Diane Lockhart is "The Better Wife"

'The Good Fight' Review: Diane Lockhart is "The Better Wife"

Alicia Florrick doesn't appear in The Good Fight, but the memory of her is everywhere. Her name comes up twice in the first two episodes of CBS All Access' new The Good Wife spin-off series — both times just her first name, making it a familiar wink to the audience. 

But then Alicia's former mentor Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski, returning to the role that earned her five Emmy nominations) drags her without even saying her name. For a viewer who remembers The Good Wife's series finale slap all too well, it's a haunting — and delicious — reference.

"People I thought with all my heart were guilty turned out to be innocent," she says, teaching a young lawyer about judgments of people. "And people I thought were saints? They weren't. That's why you don't go on instinct."

The characters don't talk directly about the events of the previous seven years much, but that doesn't mean they're not scarred by them. Diane is more cautious than she used to be. Lucca Quinn is hardened, referring to her friendship with Alicia only in the past tense. Separated husband Kurt McVeigh wants to move past his sexual indiscretion and reunite with Diane.

Yes, Diane and her cadre have a load of problems in the present, like Ponzi schemes and making homes in new law firms. But The Good Fight is all about reconciling with the past — and how the fight for the future is never truly over.

At the beginning of The Good Fight, Diane Lockhart is at the top of her game. Yes, the country just inaugurated a fascist, as Diane watches in horror, but she's set to retire from her firm and take up residence in the south of France. She's got a small fortune from working every day of her life, and she's ready to revel in it, passing the baton to new lawyers — like her goddaughter, Maia Rindell.

Unfortunately for both characters, Maia's hedge fund-operating father is arrested for running a Ponzi scheme. The subsequent investigation leaves Diane financially devastated and Maia a pariah. The latter character serves as The Good Fight's Alicia figure: a privileged woman who suddenly must make ends meet after everything changes. Rose Leslie's Maia is a great addition to the Good universe, meek but with power stored. She's a smart reactor; her internal work as Maia carefully absorbs monologues from Diane and Lucca is aces.

While Maia is just starting her legal life, Diane has become what she used to loathe, fighting for the government of Cook County against police brutality cases. Her rival in one such case, Adrian Boseman, tells her she's fighting for the wrong side. Maia quietly agrees. Lucca goes for the more direct approach: "Diane, when did you get so cynical?"

All this contributes to a feeling that Diane is misplaced. Seeing her name among a battery of named partners in her firm — a product of a three-way merger that happened between the Good Wife finale and the Good Fight pilot — feels wrong. (The hilariously long firm name doubles as a joke about the oft-changing names in The Good Wife.)

So yes, it's crushing when Diane's firm won't let her return, largely because Baranski plays her breakdown with such deep, lived-in anguish. "How is my life suddenly so fucking meaningless?" she asks, shouting the last two words between sobs. But there's also a feeling of freedom: Our favorite (albeit sometimes problematic) liberal firebrand can get back to fighting for what she believes in. Thanks to an offer from Adrian, a partner at almost all-black firm Reddick, Boseman and Kolstad, she quickly does, bringing Maia along with her.

As Adrian, Delroy Lindo is terrific, equal parts macho bluster and empathy. Adrian's partner, Barbara Kolstad (Justified's Erica Tazel), is more measured, but is chilly to Diane and the change she brings with her. They, too, serve as subtle references to the past; Adrian resembles Diane's former, deceased partner Will Gardner in passion and charm, while Barbara's reticence to accept Diane recalls Diane's own initial skepticism of Alicia.

Those two, alongside the trio of leads and Good Wife alumna Sarah Steele — once again a goddamn delight as Marissa Gold — form a remarkably strong ensemble that recalls the best of The Good Wife without the troubling rumors keeping them from interacting with each other. Each character carries the challenges of their past, but the actors never let them weigh down the series' energetic pace and tone.

The craft of the Good universe has undergone a major upgrade since The Good Wife, too. Scenes are handsomely shot, giving the show a cinematic feel that recalls the best HBO, FX and Netflix series, not a CBS procedural. Of course, The Good Wife always felt more like a cable series than a network show; now it has the look to match. It also sports some batshit opening credits that deserve an Emmy all their own.

One concern: That second episode spends a lot of time on a case-of-the-week. It's a good one, with lots of time invested in building Maia and Lucca's relationship and a surprising ending. But The Good Fight will only have 10 episodes, which causes concern about economy of time. There's great stuff happening here; creator team Robert and Michelle King's greatest challenge will be keeping eyes on everything and not losing focus. They showed some weakness in that department in The Good Wife seasons six and seven, and those had 22 episodes each. Hopefully, the lower episode count will be a challenge with creative rewards. So far, that appears to be true.

The first episode of The Good Fight will air on CBS, but the subsequent nine will only stream on the network's digital service, CBS All Access. Considering that, for now, The Good Fight is CBS All Access' only scripted series (to be joined by Star Trek: Discovery later this year), spending a minimum of $6 a month for one show may be too costly a proposition. And indeed, for non-Good Wife fans, that's probably too much; a lot of the delight of the first two episodes is in how The Good Fight builds on its predecessor.

But Good Wife fans should make the investment. The Good Fight is a marvel, one that almost makes The Good Wife feel like a first draft in retrospect. This is the Kings working at their peak, given the time and money to make something truly special. Like Diane, they've taken what they've learned and reset, coming up with something that seems familiar, but is far richer than before.

Before the spin-off even got a title, Baranski joked that the creative team had talked about calling the series The Better Wife. She may have been kidding, but looking at it now, it feels like a remarkably apt name. Even when faced with the worst, Diane finds a way to come out even stronger on the other end.