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Return of Christine Baranski corrects three-year mistake

Jeff Simon

Christine Baranski is my favorite.

But not by all that much these days. When William Fichtner topped off a fruitful life as a movie and TV character actor by becoming a regular on the sitcom "Mom" as Allison Janney's boyfriend, Baranski suddenly had competition for status as my favorite performer from Buffalo on current national TV.

But Baranski, for me, remains the top of the line – right up there on the level where James Whitmore was once upon a time. Even though I was an older schoolmate of Jeff DeMunn, who plays Paul Giamatti's father on "Billions," he doesn't quite match Baranski for my homegrown affections. Nor does the occasionally ubiquitous Bill Sadler, an even busier character actor over the years than Fichtner, and one who can still be seen in TV and movie roles.

When Jesse L. Martin was on "Law & Order" he was in contention. But, of late, his TV roles (in "The Flash," for instance) and my eyes don't connect much.

Baranski is numero uno, playing attorney Diane Lockhart. For years before that, she was Cybill Shepherd's alcoholic pal on "Cybill," which meant that I thought Baranski, far and away, was the best second banana in all of TV sitcomville.

But then she became the reigning swan gliding through Alicia's law firm on "The Good Wife," which was a perfect secondary role for a Buffalo actress who – like actress Nancy Marchand and playwright A.R. Gurney before her – had presented the world of New York theater with a confounding figure of sophistication, intelligence and even elegance, though she came from a city not only known for being blue collar and unpretentious, but one that insists on that identity, even when it borders on inappropriateness.

When you're talking about Baranski's career in theater, she's in major theater's highest idea of working class. In other words, she was in Tom Stoppard's play "The Real Thing" in 1984 and David Rabe's "Hurlyburly" in the same era. In 1986, she appeared in John Guare's "House of Blue Leaves." Those are things a world away from a tempestuous star-tossed TV sitcom like "Cybill."

On "Cybill," she was, no doubt, expected to support Shepherd's unpredictable ego. That's a long way from productions of much higher interest.

That also describes her, for years, in her biggest TV role on "The Good Wife," as the tough, brilliant, wise boss of the controversially married star attorney (Julianna Margulies). "The Good Wife" spent many years as one of the two or three smartest shows on broadcast television.

Then, at long last, "The Good Wife" came to the end of its road and CBS did something so foolish you might even up the rhetoric a little and call it downright stupid.

They indeed went ahead with a spinoff of "The Good Wife" when the show finally zeroed down after its successful and honorable and uniformly praised run. The spinoff would star Baranski and would be called "The Good Fight."

One of its spinoff creators was Phil Alden Robinson, the man who wrote and directed the movie "Field of Dreams." In other words, Baranski's new show was co-created by the guy whose line, "If you build it, he will come," is quoted almost as often as "The Godfather's" "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse."

Baranski herself was already out of TV's coveted 18-to-49 viewer age group. Her braininess and elegance obviously struck some honchos at CBS as incompatible with their plans for her original Sunday time slot. In fact, they decided she was too classy for their entire network.

So they threw her spinoff show to CBS All Access, their attempt to get into the TV programming world of computer streaming.

What CBS obviously tried to do was get clicks and revenue by making its streaming headline show a spinoff from its hugely respected and awarded Sunday night staple.

It wasn't all that bad a plan, really. It might have worked if they'd given "The Good Fight" a whole schedule of original shows of equivalent quality.

But they didn't.

A new version of "The Twilight Zone" went on CBS All Access and so did a "Star Trek," but for all the streaming shows, promotion was spotty at best and high quality was sparse. You didn't require interpretive genius to see CBS' new streaming series as solidly secondary things in CBS' corporate thinking.

The shows on CBS All Access weren't actually in exile, but they weren't exactly in the major leagues either. They were in the minors, in which the brass clearly had scant interest.

It was a foolish thing to do a spinoff as smart and stylish and carefully put together as "The Good Fight," starring Baranski as a professional aristocrat in Chicago's legal community who has to start over completely when her money manager is revealed to be in the Bernie Madoff business.

Goodbye, retirement in Provence.

To CBS executives' credit, they finally corrected their Sunday night blunder three years late. As a summer replacement series just days ago, they put "The Good Fight" on Sunday TV at long last for anyone and everyone to watch.

No extra viewer cost. It went on right after "60 Minutes." Somebody understood they'd made a crummy decision originally and they found a way to redeem it.

In the words of some ancient comedians' wisdom, there's no such thing as an old joke if you've never heard it before.

"The Good Fight" on CBS All Access – the streaming vehicle so few of us watched – has already been on the air three years, to the tune of 33 episodes. They can all be seen streaming. I'd never seen one before and I'm guessing you haven't either.

So they can now be watched singly in the format and regular broadcast time slot where the spinoff should have been considered originally if the network had been clever enough to have any faith in it.

I can explain my personal affection for Baranski very simply.

I reviewed her in 1980 at the much-lamented Studio Arena Theatre in an altogether lamentable, but commercially canny Mark Berman play called "Lady of the Diamond."

The cleverly commercial TV-ish idea of the play was a woman becoming the first woman to pitch in Major League Baseball. That, of course, was Baranski who, at 28, was lanky enough to be physically convincing.

Her co-star in it was the redoubtable John Goodman, at that point a positively svelte 70 pounds or so lighter than he later became in the roles that made him famous.

Berman's play wasn't much as a play; it cried out to be a TV pilot. Eventually, the idea in fact became an interesting TV show called "Pitch." The Studio Arena production was directed by Jack O'Brien, whose commercial smarts in competing with Hollywood were eventually proved on Broadway by his theatrical versions of the movies "The Full Monty" and "Hairspray."

Baranski came back to Studio Arena a year later to perform in a lesser Lanford Wilson play called "Tally's Folly." She was originally Buffalo raised. Her grandparents were in Polish language theater.

Telling Buffalonians now about a play here that starred Baranski and Goodman is a way of reminding people of something remarkable here that we once had and lost. It's a little like reminding people when the Buffalo Braves were in town and Bob McAdoo was a league leader among players.

But then sometimes things actually go right in this world. Make-goods can happen. Intelligence and quality are served up to people completely without embarrassment.

How nice it is to see Baranski so prominent in broadcast prime time again.

At long last in her own show.

Major league.

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