There’s no orthodoxy quite so rigid or as routinely mocked in television as the spin-off. There’s only really one of two ways they get developed: choose a supporting character from the donor show and transplant them clear across the country to a completely new environment with a brand new supporting cast and probably even a completely different tone from the original. The other is to just franchise: take the same basic premise, place it somewhere else with a completely unrelated cast, and pick a fresh song from The Who’s catalogue for the opening credits. The former has been the dominant paradigm for at least thirty years, despite having a spectacular failure rate.
Every producer dreams of landing their own Frasier, plucking a barely recognizable side character out of a wildly popular show and embarking on a decade spanning run to match its predecessor. The reality is anything but tossed salads and scrambled eggs: any given spin-off would be incredibly lucky to get a run like Angel or Private Practice when the vast majority end up as forgettable trivia night fodder like Joey. With odds that long, the pervasiveness of that losing formula is inexplicable, which is what makes The Good Wife’s progeny The Good Fight such a welcome and novel deviation from the norm.
The debut episode, centering The Good Wife regular Diane Lockhart (Christine Baransky) teases the notion of a conventional spin-off: all set on decamping to France to enjoy her pending retirement, Lockhart has her savings wiped out in an instant with the discovery that her most loyal and celebrated friends had kept their hedge fund afloat through the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis by converting it into a naked Ponzi scheme. Potentially destitute and blocked from a return to partnership at her former firm, Lockhart and her protege Maia Rindell (Rose Leslie), the daughter of the fund’s manager, find a new home at an all black firm headed up by Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo)
Not only does The Good Fight buck convention by remaining in The Good Wife’s vision of Chicago, it also retains the bulk of its predecessor’s regulars including the idiosyncratic judges to Alicia Florrick’s most iconic clients from celebrity wife killer Colin Sweeney (Dylan Baker) to Mark Zuckerberg stand-in Neil Gross (John Benjamin Hickey) and Bitcoin author Dylan Stack (Jason Biggs). It provides a level of comfort typically alien to viewers following a spin-off from its parent series, but it also frames that continuity in a way that appears to be culled directly from the strategies employed by comic book adaptations like Supergirl, Agents of SHIELD, and Riverdale.
It’s a shift in storytelling that makes itself felt the most clearly when Reddick, Boseman, and Kolstad finds itself in the city’s crosshairs for winning a series of settlements against the CPD for police brutality and must find a lawyer to represent the firm. The Good Wife veteran Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo) takes point in the search for representation, telling managing partner Boseman that she has an unconventional candidate in mind, setting up the kind of insider oriented foreshadowing that comic book adaptations thrive on. In this case, the character is Carrie Preston’s Elsbeth Tascioni, The Good Wife’s most beloved series regular, defined by her implied non-neurotypicality and exclusive ability to pull the tone of the series out of its typical self-seriousness into a whimsical magical realism, essentially making her the Deadpool equivalent of the fictional world she inhabits.
This shift from the typical leap into the unknown to overtly winking at long time viewers is part and parcel of a radical retooling of what defined The Good Wife as essential viewing for middle aged women into a set of sensibilities and storytelling devices aimed squarely at a genre savvy millennial audience becoming increasingly accustomed to being rewarded for possessing the kind of insider knowledge that Riverdale, Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Gotham, Supergirl, and Agents of SHIELD thrive on.
It’s a long overdue cross pollination given that legal dramas have been the most consistent source of power fantasies for women on television over the last thirty or so years, and superheroes as we know them now have been the power fantasy ne plus ultra of the western world for three quarters of a century. While Alicia Florrick, as the protagonist of The Good Wife, was certainly capable of vulnerability and misjudgements, the character’s defining traits were Julianna Margulies’ unparalleled ability to project both stony stoicism and a razor sharp intellect under the most trying circumstances across a dizzying spectrum of facets of criminal and civil law.
Paired with her physical absence and the legendary status conferred onto her in the mentions she does receive in The Good Fight, Alicia looms over the show and its newly minted heroine Maia Rendell in a nearly identical way to how Superman cast a long shadow over Supergirl prior to his eventual appearance or how the cinematic Avengers are framed by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Defenders collection of Netflix series. Maia is, in every way but familial, a kind of Supergirl to Alicia’s Superman. While Alicia and Diane’s respective initial character arcs in The Good Wife and The Good Fight hinge on being forced back into careers they left by personal and financial crisis–a set of circumstances deeply relatable to middle and retirement age professional women in countless industries–newcomer Maia is forced to confront personal crisis and financial precarity on the first day of her career as a law graduate.
It’s a pivot that moves to capture the zeitgeist for millennial women, a smart move to rejuvenate the property by widening its appeal to a younger, more influential demographic catered directly to by rival dramas like How to Get Away With Murder, but does it in a way that creates a sympathetic bond between all three of the franchise’s central characters. Maia and Diane are united directly by the aftermath of the Rindell Ponzi scheme, but they share political and criminal scandal as the catalyst for their actions. It’s another conceit with far more precedent in superhero fiction than prime time television, putting Maia in the same class of legacy hero, a younger revamp of a classic character imbued with the concerns and qualities of the day, as Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel), Miles Morales (Spider-Man) or Laura Kinney (Wolverine).
It’s the final piece of the puzzle in what makes The Good Wife such a seemingly unconventional and welcome pivot for a television drama while also being comfortably familiar to a superhero savvy audience. The Good Wife’s embrace of the conventions of genre fiction to find its stride isn’t entirely without precedent. Bones conspicuously plundered not only co-star David Boreanaz from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but arguably the biggest killer apps of Joss Whedon’s brainchild: a central cast of clashing misfits (iconically referred to as Scoobies in BTVS) and the practice of supplementing episodic stories with a season spanning antagonist (or Big Bad).
Bones also drew heavily from The X-Files, delivering in Booth and Brennan a near carbon copy of the erotically charged skeptic/believer dynamic between Mulder and Scully as well as the heavy overtones of conspiracy and deep state interference in their word. What allowed Bones to thrive for a prodigious twelve season run was its willingness to tinker with the formulas it appropriated. Instead of the expected maintaining of unresolved sexual tension between its leads, Bones outright rejected the notion of a status quo by plowing forward with the relentless evolution of Booth and Brennan’s relationship from platonic to romantic to their eventual marriage and decision to raise children together.
It also innovated on the core clique that Buffy relied on by introducing a rotating cast of interns for Brennan, keeping the core cast from becoming stagnant by continually drawing on the interns to build long term engagement in the audience with storylines that took multiple seasons to see through and a much richer, more diverse supporting cast than either genre shows like Buffy or more conventional procedurals.
Now that The Good Wife has shown a willingness to break away from the typical execution of spinoffs to embrace the presentation and demographics pushing superheroes to the forefront of popular culture, the key question is if it can avoid relegation to the overstuffed failed tv spinoff wing of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery by seizing on the opportunities it’s created for itself as successfully as Bones did before it.