The election of Donald Trump in 2016 triggered the liberal fight-or-flight response, most acutely in Hollywood. Celebrities such as Girls star Lena Dunham and pop singer Miley Cyrus announced that they would leave the country; others declared themselves shocked, shocked! that a man who had embraced traditional celebrity tactics such as shamelessly defying social norms and ostentatiously boasting about his wealth and sexual prowess had somehow ended up in the White House—a building that Madonna claimed she now thought a lot about blowing up.
Trump’s election also weighed heavily on the minds of Robert and Michelle King, the husband-and-wife creators of the CBS streaming channel drama, The Good Fight. The show, a spin-off of their popular series The Good Wife, was originally designed to be the story of how powerful female barrister Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) was going to set herself to the task of shattering glass ceilings in the law in the manner of her hero, Hillary Clinton.
But between the pitch in 2016 and the show’s premiere in 2017, there fell the shadow of Trump. As Michelle King told the Atlantic, Trump’s victory “turned this into a very different show than the one we thought we were gonna be making…And there’s something exciting about that—suddenly you’re working without a net.” Robert King agreed: “Michelle and I were both having to deal with what felt like was off about the country, that there was a loss of guardrails.”
If you’re wondering what Hollywood drama looks like with the guardrails off, the narrative arc of The Good Fight’s three seasons (a fourth is in the works) offers a useful case study—and a cautionary tale.
In the 1990s, The West Wing’s Jed Bartlet was Hollywood’s attempt at imagining a tough but appealingly liberal president free from the pesky immoralities of a Bill Clinton. The Good Fight doesn’t bother with fictionalizing anything. The president here is Trump—the real Trump, depicted in snippets of video footage and occasionally with the help of an impersonator’s voice. He is the show’s villain, foil, and omnipresent id.
By making Trump central to the show’s plot, the writers no doubt think they are elevating the form and offering viewers hard-hitting, ripped-from-the-headlines political commentary that will galvanize their audience to join the real-life #Resistance. Instead, by trafficking in conspiracy theories and irrational anger, The Good Fight is more of a fun-house mirror than a recruiting tool, reflecting a virulent and distorted strain of progressive paranoia while only sporadically entertaining the subscribers to CBS’s All Access service.
Anyone to the right of Bernie Sanders is not the target audience for this show. Its creators made that clear from the opening scene of the first season, which shows Diane Lockhart watching footage of Trump’s inauguration on TV with a look of shock and horror on her face. By the third season, the opening credits feature televisions with still shots of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence—and Sean Hannity!—spontaneously exploding.
Of course, the elevation of Trump to the highest office in the land sent more than just Hollywood into a panic. Many progressive pundits see in Trump’s every act as president a burgeoning new authoritarianism (while conveniently memory-holing examples of President Obama detaining people at the border or ordering drone strikes, for example). Others descended into deep pretension, reminding the public that Frankfurt School theorists such as Theodor Adorno had warned us decades ago how a disregard for the truth and manipulation of the media were hallmarks of creeping fascism. “‘Make America Great Again’ is one of Trump’s many linguistic contortions,” wrote Alex Ross in a New Yorker essay about the Frankfurt School. “In fact, one of his core messages is that America should no longer bother with being great, that it should retreat from international commitments, that it should make itself small and mean.”
What does a “small and mean” administration have to do with a fictional corporate law office? A lot, it turns out.
The Good Fight is ostensibly about a Chicago firm founded by an iconic African-American civil-rights lawyer. Diane Lockhart, a white woman, joins the firm after she falls prey to a Bernie Madoff–style Ponzi scheme, loses her life savings, and has to delay retirement and return to work.
In the early going, the show focuses on Diane’s efforts to find her footing in the firm, as its writers explore of-the-moment topics such as curbing hate speech on social-media platforms and custody questions related to the ownership of embryos. A running theme is hatred directed at lawyers, some of whom are being killed by disgruntled clients. Diane is clearly flummoxed and angry about Trump’s presidency, as her frequent political asides suggest, but the subject doesn’t dominate her existence or the viewer’s experience over the first season’s 10 episodes.
In the second season, The Good Fight devotes an increasing amount of time to political plots, such as the firm’s efforts to get hired by the Democratic National Committee to develop strategies to impeach Trump. It also agrees to represent a prostitute who claims she’s being deported because she is one of the women filmed with the president on the infamous “pee tape,” which Diane attempts to verify. Diane also personally courts another woman who claims to have signed a nondisclosure agreement with Trump because Trump paid for her to have an abortion after their affair. When Diane asks her what she should do to bring down such a terrible president, the woman tells her, “Follow the women.”
Meanwhile, the Trump-appointed judges in the show are portrayed as incompetent fools; ICE agents are depicted as aggressive bullies and life-ruiners; and Diane finds herself increasingly at odds with the one sympathetically portrayed conservative character on the show—her estranged husband, Kurt (Gary Cole). Eventually, Diane begins micro-dosing the hallucinogenic psilocybin to cope with the daily news about Trump and to handle dating an activist-anarchist who talks about violently overthrowing the government with the casual aplomb of a sitcom character complaining about his mother-in-law.
The pragmatism and compromise and negotiation that characterized Diane’s legal work at the start of the show are entirely absent in these political storylines; here, there is only power and corruption and violence and amorality. It becomes increasingly clear that the real theme of the show isn’t resistance. Or fear. It’s nihilism masquerading as idealism—a nihilism that reaches its peak in the third season, when even the weather in every episode is dark and stormy.
Diane joins a group of activist #Resistance women who call themselves “the Book Club” and who are intent on using Trump’s tactics against him in an effort to erode the support of his base. They are especially keen on undermining his popularity among evangelical Christians by revealing him to be a serial adulterer (and supporter of abortions for his knocked-up mistresses), as if any Christian who voted for him wasn’t already aware of his many peccadilloes.
The Book Club rejects moderate tactics as insufficient for the country’s new reality. “Democrats act like it’s the ’90s!” one member of the anti-Trump coven says in a moment of exasperation, before green-lighting the group’s version of fake news online: a story claiming the Trump administration is lacing school cafeteria sloppy joes with cyanide.
Later, the group hatches a plot to kill a Trump-administration official (a Stephen Miller lookalike in charge of immigration policy) by “swatting” him (making a prank emergency call so that a SWAT team will descend on his house). Their plan works, and he is killed, but the slight qualms expressed by Diane, who in earlier scenes had denounced the official as evil, seem pro forma at best. We’re not supposed to feel much sympathy for a dead Trump official.
Soon the group is exploring ways to rig voting machines in 2020 to favor Democratic candidates, claiming that voter suppression justifies this end run around the democratic process. Diane wonders aloud if this is appropriate and isn’t sure she wants to participate, but her moral reckoning seems inauthentic given her general behavior. While attending a Republican fundraiser with her husband, for example, Diane secretly records some of the conversation; when he says she should delete it, she responds, “Oh, and if we were at Goebbels’s party, you really think it would be wrong to record?”
Meanwhile, back at the law firm, an associate receives a call, supposedly from First Lady Melania Trump, inquiring about getting a divorce. Another lawyer’s prospects for a job at the firm are shattered when it is revealed that the lawyer had helped “prep Brett Kavanaugh” for his Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
One lawyer who does find his way to the firm is Roland Blum, whom Michael Sheen plays as a deranged hobbit channeling Willy Wonka. The incarnation of cynicism, Blum fornicates frequently, lies constantly, sucks on fentanyl lollipops, and claims Roy Cohn as his personal hero. Oh, and he’s a Trump supporter.
“I know Trump. He’s not going anywhere…. He wants a third term,” Blum tells Diane in one scene.
“People will rise up!” she says.
Blum laughs. “Because that’s what people do when the jobless rate is at 3.7? Trump wins because he sees life as a battle…. Liberals never get that.”
The writers of The Good Fight are hell-bent on showing us that they do get it, so much so that they include Schoolhouse Rock–style animated shorts in nearly every episode that explain real-life important things such as the supposed unfairness of the electoral college and the dangers of Pepe the Frog memes.
Fans of the show have tried to justify its disjointed narratives and one-note anti-Trumpism as artful satire. New York magazine called the show “a political fantasia on the themes of right now, a glorious heady mishmash of everything…a romp and a farce and a jeremiad and an educational cartoon and a furious screed and a pastiche of an All the President’s Men–style thriller all at once.”
In other words, it’s a mess, and by the end of the third season, even viewers who aren’t Trump fans will struggle to watch the endless Trump-bashing. It’s not a “good fight.” It’s merely an extended liberal fever dream, at times literally. After Diane’s husband Kurt is injured while acting as a guide on a hunting safari with Eric Trump and Don Trump Jr., she lies awake late at night, staring at the scar on his shoulder, which gradually morphs into the shape of President Trump’s face and begins talking to her.
The “conversation” they have is revealing. “What happened to men?” she asks, sounding disgusted. “When did Trump and Kavanaugh become our idea of an aggrieved man? Quivering lips blaming everyone but themselves?” Later, she hate-scrolls through what we’re meant to believe is Eric Trump’s Instagram account, which features many close-up pictures of the dead exotic animals he’s presumably killed.
If The West Wing was “political pornography for liberals,” as John Podhoretz wrote 17 years ago in the Weekly Standard, then The Good Fight veers into porn’s masochistic substrate. As Kurt asks Diane at one point, “Is it possible for you to get past your hatred of them?” Evidently not, which leaves viewers longing for less performative progressivism and more straight-up legal drama.
Ironically, the show’s singular focus on Trump reveals the destructiveness of this way of living (and entertaining). The last scene in the final episode of Season Three shows a newly reconciled, postcoital Diane and Kurt, now exemplars of bipartisan marriage, talking about finding happiness again. What they don’t know is that they are about to get swatted, presumably because the leftist extremist “Book Club” that Diane abandoned (and whose leader threatened to destroy any dissenters) is making good on its word.
So, if either Kurt or Diane ends up dead, it won’t be because of Trump; rather, it will be because of lefty infighting and an insistence on ideological purity that leads to violence when challenged. The Good Fight’s creators want everyone to see Trump as the existential threat they believe him to be. But because the show takes politics far too seriously and Trump far too personally, it ends up making Trump’s fictional enemies appear more dangerously unhinged than Trump himself. Hollywood has lost the plot.