Screen Test

TV reviews: The Good Fight is smart TV and Better Things offers funny focus on parenting

Spin-off to The Good Wife is riveting, laced with human drama and backed by compelling acting while Better Things takes a convincing look at parenthood

Spin-offs aren't usually a good idea - they are rarely as good as the original series or film, their very existence suggesting a certain creative bankruptcy.

But imagine if you could keep all the things you liked about the original and jettison the most annoying bits.

With The Good Wife (2009-2016), that would mean retaining the bits that made it the best legal procedural/political drama of its time - and getting rid of Julianna Margulies, the over-rated series lead.

The Good Fight manages this marvellously. It begins a year after the events of The Good Wife, which was a show about Alicia Florrick (Margulies), the wife of a disgraced politician who dutifully stood by him through his political scandals before coming into her own as a lawyer.

The new series ignores Alicia and focuses on a senior partner at her old firm, Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), who is on the verge of retiring in style when a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi scheme wipes out her life savings.

Also left in tatters is the reputation of Diane's goddaughter Maia (played by Rose Leslie from Game Of Thrones), a junior lawyer whose father allegedly masterminded the scheme.

The Good Fight focuses on lawyer Diane Lockhart (played by Christine Baranski, left) rising from the ashes after a Ponzi scheme wipes out her life savings. PHOTO: CBS

Diane is forced out of her old firm and joins the only big Chicago partnership that will hire her - an African-American one specialising in police brutality cases. Here, just like Alicia, she will have to rise from the ashes and reinvent herself.

Creators Robert and Michelle King deploy the same whip-smart, well-researched writing and wide-ranging, zeitgeisty topicality they brought to The Good Wife.

Gripping case-of-the-week arcs cover a host of current technological and ethical puzzlers, including the problem of regulating Internet hate speech and custody fights over donated embryos.

There is also the same keen eye for juicy but nuanced human drama that made the earlier show so watchable, this time steeped in the real-life political and racial dynamics of President Donald Trump's America, where being the only Trump supporter at a liberal law firm can be both an asset and a liability.

Baranski and Leslie can both act circles around Margulies, whose chief talent was looking the part, her mannequin-like expressionlessness a blank slate onto which viewers projected their own fantasies. And reprising her role as lawyer Lucca, the blank-faced Cush Jumbo seems to have gone to the same acting school.

Thankfully, the supporting cast is excellent.

Newcomer Delroy Lindo plays Bozeman, Diane's boss, and returning guest stars include Gary Cole as Diane's estranged husband (one of the few full-throated screen romances you will see involving two actors in their 60s), Matthew Perry as the nefarious prosecutor trying to destroy the firm, and Carrie Preston as the ditzy but brilliant attorney who defends them.

This is the rare procedural drama to offer an analysis of current issues that is novel, intellectually stimulating and surprisingly moreish.

When it comes to smart television, the Kings are indeed fighting the good fight.

Better Things, a new comedy series, is also championing a worthy cause: Shining a light on the Sisyphean slog of parenting, with its daily drudgery, heartbreak and joy.

Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon) is a single mother trying to raise three daughters in Los Angeles while also sustaining a career as a middle-aged actress.

Co-created by Adlon and comedian Louis C.K., it has been touted as a female version of the latter's Emmy-winning Louie, a loosely autobiographical series about C.K.'s misadventures as a stand-up comic and co-parent to two young girls.

In Better Things, Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon, left) plays a single mother trying to raise three daughters (including Frankie, played by Hannah Alligood, right) while struggling as a middleaged actress.
In Better Things, Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon, left) plays a single mother trying to raise three daughters (including Frankie, played by Hannah Alligood, right) while struggling as a middleaged actress. PHOTO: FX

Better Things takes a similarly atypical approach for a sitcom, adopting a loose narrative structure and the same warts-and-all naturalism.

But it dives more deeply into the constantly shifting and periodically renegotiated parent-child relationship, which most comedies reduce to caricatures and punchlines.


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Instead, each of Sam's daughters is a fully realised character that doesn't fall into the usual child stereotypes.

Moody post-pubescent Max (Mikey Madison) is not so much shiftless as confused and scared about becoming an adult; gender-non-conforming Frankie (Hannah Alligood) is wise beyond her years; but like the littlest one, Duke (Olivia Edward), they both ultimately still need their mum, even though she periodically makes a mess of it.

Their on-screen dynamic captures the unique complications of the mother-daughter bond, which are thrown into relief by Sam's fraught relationship with her own mum, who lives across the road and constantly vexes her.

In the vein of the showbiz satire Episodes, Better Things also lifts the curtain on ageism and sexism in Hollywood as Sam suffers the indignities of being an older female performer.

The series is a little uneven and some episodes noticeably less compelling than others. But it is still a funny, sad and sweet story about the messiness of being a parent, and of being a human in general, and how so few have it all figured out.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2017, with the headline 'Spin-off pulls off a Good Fight'. Print Edition | Subscribe