Whatever else the series has to say about the current times and national mood, “Billions” works because the focus remains steadfastly on the characters. Occasionally funny and frequently profane, it provides commentary without being heavy-handed, and escapism by gliding through the serialized jockeying for power and advantage against a decadent backdrop of the lifestyles of the .001-percent bracket.
“The Good Fight,” by contrast, is also smart, but in its new season veers so far toward reality — into what’s basically a real-time version of historical fiction, mixing actual people with fictional ones — as to distract from its central storylines.
Set in a high-powered law firm, the new season finds attorney Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) again dealing with a woman who claims to have had an affair with President Trump, while another subplot — which discretely unfolds off screen — relates to the president’s sons, Don Jr. and Eric.
Separately, Diane begins actively working with a “resistance” group, while harboring doubts about its tactics. There’s also a strong sexual-harassment storyline, and a trial that involves the murder of a journalist, making a point about the hostile environment in which “reporters are being targeted by protestors all over the world.”
Producers Robert and Michelle King have always dealt with hot-button issues through their courtroom drama, and they clearly feel liberated by this premium-TV platform. That includes dropping in amusing little animated interstitials each week, explaining things like nondisclosure agreements, the late Roy Cohn and online troll farms via what amounts to a jaded form of “Schoolhouse Rock.”
The balancing act, however, occasionally goes haywire, invading reality in a manner that at best risks becoming too cute for its own good, and at worst borders on self-indulgence.
The show remains impeccably cast, and there are wonderful moments, such as Lucca (Cush Jumbo) wrestling with the vagaries of motherhood. A new player also includes the always-welcome addition of Michael Sheen as a positively bonkers and amoral defense attorney, who clashes with the firm’s Maia, played by Rose Leslie.
The distinction between these two premium shows, both airing on CBS-owned services, ultimately provides a useful lesson for dramatists in this polarized age. Because even if you support what the characters in “The Good Fight” are fighting for, when the satirical flourishes start to eclipse the drama, it’s not an especially good look.
“The Good Fight” returns March 14 on CBS All Access. “Billions” returns March 17 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.