DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. This Sunday, HBO begins a new miniseries, "Big Little Lies," starring Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. And CBS unveils a new drama series, a spinoff of "The Good Wife" that premieres on the broadcast network then relocates to its subscription streaming site.
"Big Little Lies" is a miniseries that begins with a murder scene and investigation in the close-knit oceanside town of Monterey. It's a seven-episode drama, and HBO made the first six available for preview. Even after watching all of them, I still don't know the identity of the murderer. Or, for that matter, the victim. But that's on purpose. Based on the novel by Liane Moriarty, "Big Little Lies" is a study in motivation, conflict and most of all secrets. You watch this miniseries to actively identify the potential killer and the person most likely to be murdered. And the more "Big Little Lies" plays out, the more you realize they could be anyone.
Two of this drama's stars, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, also rank among its executive producers and have found themselves some especially deep and challenging roles to play. Witherspoon is Madeline, a super involved, super intense mom. And Kidman is Celeste, whose seemingly storybook marriage to the handsome and charismatic Perry is the envy of almost everyone else in Monterey but perhaps shouldn't be. Celeste hints as much in a private talk with Madeline.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BIG LITTLE LIES")
REESE WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline Martha Mackenzie) You telling me you and Perry don't ever fight?
NICOLE KIDMAN: (As Celeste Wright) No, we do sometimes.
WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline Martha Mackenzie) And then do you run off to therapy afterwards?
KIDMAN: (As Celeste Wright) More often than not we end up having sex.
WITHERSPOON: (As Madeline Martha Mackenzie) Really?
KIDMAN: (As Celeste Wright) Yes. It starts with anger. It's complicated. Sometimes I think that he likes to fight because it leads to sex. Sometimes I think I like it, too.
BIANCULLI: Perry is played by Alexander Skarsgard, who's already scored impressive roles on HBO in "Generation Kill" and "True Blood." Here his scenes with Nicole Kidman are the best and most chilling. But there are lots of strong roles and performances here, including Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley playing two other combative Monterey moms. Like mother bears protecting their cubs, they'd kill to protect their young - and most likely one of them has. Witherspoon brought her director from the movie "Wild," Jean-Marc Vallee, along to direct every episode of this project. And every episode was written by David E. Kelley, who had so much fun writing for female voices on such broadcast series as "Ally McBeal."
Here on HBO, he has a field day amping up the humor and the drama in equal measure. He transplants the novel from Australia to Northern California but otherwise stays very true to the issues of female empowerment, interaction and frustration. "Big Little Lies" takes full advantage of the major assets of the TV miniseries. Networks can sign up major talent for a short-term commitment and viewers have no idea if the characters will even survive to the end.
"The Good Fight" on CBS is all about survival. It's a spinoff of the series "The Good Wife," which starred Julianna Margulies as a woman embarking on a new life after her politician husband was caught in a scandal. Margulies is nowhere to be found in "The Good Fight," but series creators Robert and Michelle King, who created "The Good Wife" as well, have populated this spinoff with some familiar and very welcome faces from the old show. Sarah Steele is back as Eli Gold's daughter. Cush Jumbo is back as attorney Lucca Quinn. And central to the story, which picks up about a year after "The Good Wife" ended, is Christine Baranski's Diane Lockhart.
She opens "The Good Fight" by watching on TV the inauguration of Donald Trump. In the next scenes, she purchases a lavish villa in France and announces her retirement from the law firm she co-founded. This new beginning has the feel of a happy ending until Diane learns that the close friend who has invested her savings all these years and to whom she has referred many close friends and important clients has been arrested, accused of running a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. Diane's money is gone.
And when she returns to her law firm to reclaim her position and addresses the board run by her former partners, so is her job. Zach Grenier guest stars as David Lee and Jerry Adler as Howard Lyman.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD FIGHT")
CHRISTINE BARANSKI: (As Diane Lockhart) This is not just about my financial situation. I'm also afraid I would miss practicing the law. I was in the midst of the Kendall deposition and I thought, my God, I love this. This is what I do.
ZACH GRENIER: (As David Lee) So what do you propose?
BARANSKI: (As Diane Lockhart) That I not leave. That I close the case and then I stay on.
GRENIER: (As David Lee) In what position?
BARANSKI: (As Diane Lockhart) This position. My current position.
JERRY ADLER: (As Howard Lyman) You signed your exit agreement.
BARANSKI: (As Diane Lockhart) Well, yes, but I would suggest we rip that up for the moment.
GRENIER: (As David Lee) Unfortunately, I don't think that works for us.
BIANCULLI: "The Good Wife" always was about reinvention and perseverance, and "The Good Fight" continues those themes beautifully. It's an excellent series, a perfect sequel. And while it makes room for established characters, it also presents some new ones, including Delroy Lindo as a partner at a competing Chicago law firm and Rose Leslie, who was in both "Downton Abbey" and "Game Of Thrones," as Maia Rindell, a brand-new lawyer and the daughter of a disgraced financial adviser. And while it'll be bleeped out of the version shown on CBS this Sunday, "The Good Fight" also features some very emphatic uses of the F-word.
And this is the key thing to know about "The Good Fight." It's being used by CBS as bait to lure you to the network's streaming site, CBS All Access. After this weekend's premiere on the broadcast network, "The Good Fight" moves to the streaming site, which until now has offered selected reruns of a few CBS series and gotten about 1 million subscribers at $5.99 cents a month. This is its first original offering, and for a while, until and unless it shows up on DVD or somewhere else, the only place to see "The Good Fight" after this Sunday. You'll get to see it unedited and uninterrupted, but it's the first time CBS or any major network has tried so aggressively to push viewers towards a paid streaming site.
As a TV viewer with an already ultra-high monthly cable and satellite bill, I'm not happy about that. I am happy about the quality of "The Good Fight." It's better than any other new drama CBS presented this season. But after this weekend you have to pay to get it. If this is TV's future, it's not going to be cheap.
(SOUNDBITE OF BARBARA CARROLL SONG, "LESTER LEAPS IN")
BIANCULLI: Coming up, an appreciation of Barbara Carroll, the jazz pianist and vocalist who died Sunday at age 92. This is FRESH AIR.
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