Husband-and-wife writing/producing team Robert and Michelle King are among the busiest in the business, having captained seven seasons of their critically-praised CBS hit The Good Wife — before transforming the show into the CBS All Access spinoff series The Good Fight.
The Good Fight is now airing its third season on the streaming service and its first on broadcast CBS — as well as CBS’ 2016 summer series Brain Dead and this fall’s upcoming chiller, Evil.
Evil, about a skeptical female clinical psychologist, a priest-in-training and a blue-collar contractor who investigate supposed miracles, demonic possession, and other extraordinary occurrences, joins CBS’ schedule on Thursday, September 26, and promises plenty of scares in the 10 PM hour, a particularly sharp jolt following two hours of the network’s comedies.
Last week in Beverly Hills, Robert — a self-professed religious Catholic — and Michelle — a self-described agnostic Jew — appeared on a panel in front of journalists at the Television Critics Association (TCA) convention, to talk about the origin of the series — basically, it’s the argument about the nature of evil that the two writers have had throughout their marriage; he, more amenable to spiritual explanations, and she more prone to the scientific.
Monsters & Critics caught up with Robert to talk about The Good Wife, The Good Fight and Evil, and how the latest show fits in as just the latest in a growing oeuvre that brilliantly captures the nature of American life and politics in 2019.
Monsters & Critics: Before The Good Wife, TV procedurals as a genre didn’t offer a whole lot of character development about their main casts — they meted out those character moments so seldom that it might take you ten or even twenty seasons to get to know your heroes and heroines. But with The Good Wife, you changed that balance and we fell in instant love with Alicia. Was there resistance to changing the formula?
Robert King: At the beginning, it was odd because when people thought of a CBS procedural, they didn’t think of it as being so character-heavy. There were a lot of struggles in the writers’ room about how to tell the story, and still have character upfront. I think the biggest, most important decision [we made] in the writer’s room was to not really complete stories because stories in procedurals are very predictable.
In law shows they’re incredibly predictable. You’re going to end with a verdict. So our decision was to not follow that law show template. If you look at the shows, you’ll be amazed or maybe even critical of how quickly we wrap things up. And that’s because we need the room to do the character stuff. And in the end, people don’t care as much. They just want to know if it ends happy or sad.
The other thing was deemphasizing the “client of the week.” Because [writing for] a client of the week is always trying to give someone who’s just a guest actor some point. And in fact, really the point was not the stakes of the [guest] actor or character, it was always “Will Alicia Florrick do better in her job, or worse?”
And I thought that was the triumph of the writers, solving this by going to our cast because they’re going to come back next week. You want to know, did Cary lose? Or Alicia win?
M&C: The Good Wife and The Good Fight definitely feature stories about good and evil, although often in shades of gray. And the argument about good or bad is always intellectual. And then you’ve got two other shows, Brain Dead and Evil, which have physical manifestations of evil, via metaphors like bugs or demons. Are those just two styles for saying the same thing?
Robert King: My first job was a killer cockroach movie with Roger Corman [The Nest, starring Robert Lansing.] I think you’re always going back to your roots to find a way to make physical something that is an internal struggle.
M&C: What’s scarier — a demon coming into your bedroom or bugs trying to crawl into your ear?
Robert King: Oh, bugs! I was always creeped out by that. Uh, hold on. Demons are bad, though, too.
M&C: In one episode last season [Season 3, Episode 6, The One with the Celebrity Divorce], I know that it’s meant ultimately to be up to the viewer’s interpretation — but do you think, within the context of your show, that that really was Milania Trump?
Robert King: I will say this: in an earlier script, it was Milania. It was more definitive. We really pulled back, because, A) that’s less interesting, and B) it’s less legal.
M&C: But it was brilliantly constructed, leaving us wondering whether it could have been an impersonator.
Robert King: And Gina Gershon did a wonderful job. I kind of wanted to see more of that last scene. Once we saw the dailies it was like, “Oh, I wish we did one more scene with her.” But we could still do it in the future.
M&C: Does All Access allow you to be more overtly political than CBS did?
Robert King: I was surprised [by] how political [the CBS] network allowed us to be. Although with how extreme we’re going on All Access, I’m not sure if [a broadcast] network would have followed there. There might’ve been a sense that we should pull back a little bit.
M&C: But the irony is, The Good Fight Season 1 just aired on the CBS network.
Robert King: And we didn’t have to cut that much from it, too. It’s a very difficult time because it’s such a partisan time and people define themselves by not only what they like, but what they hate. And that’s a difficult time for writers because you don’t want people to hate you.
M&C: Switching gears for a moment to Evil. My husband and I were both raised Catholic, and he has a theory that anything that touches on demonic evil is way more terrifying for someone raised Catholic. Do you think that’s true?
Robert King: I think it might be true. Anybody who’s gone to catechism has those demons kind of dancing around with them. We always had these books in catechism that showed the human heart as a valentine, and with every little sin, even if it was stealing chocolate or telling a lie, your heart got a little black dot.
And then you would see over the course of time, a child getting a lot of black dots on their heart and the black dots filling the heart and then dying.
I think a lot of us have that sense of evil, that it can be quantified and pictured in that way. And so I think we’re more likely, the Catholics, to see physical manifestations of something that is probably more ethereal. So I do think Catholics are more likely to be terrified by the show. I didn’t see The Exorcist until I was 20 and I couldn’t sleep that night.
There are versions of demons in other cultures, though — Jewish “dybbuks” and Jinn in Muslim culture. And in one episode, we’re doing a Muslim exorcism, a Jewish exorcism and a Christian exorcism, and it’s kind of a comparative study of how different they are, but how similar they are too.
M&C: Is there a part of you that is superstitious about invoking any of this?
Robert King: Our writers’ room is. One of the writers had to leave because she was starting her own show, and she brought people an old ouija board. She got it at an antique shop and people have not wanted to open it.
When you’re talking about this stuff all day, there’s an odd superstition that enters in that isn’t even religious. It’s kind of like, I don’t want to touch the monkey paw!
M&C: On your shows, you manage to lighten up some of the subject matter with moments of comedy. But how do you keep it light in your real lives as writers, when you’re dealing with heavy material?
Robert King: [Michelle and I] jump around now from the Evil writers’ room to, in a month, The Good Fight writers’ room. The Good Fight writers’ room was depressed, and strangely enough, the Evil writers’ room is very light.
I’ve forgotten who wrote this, but supposedly when Sartre was writing No Exit, he was the happiest man in Paris at the time, because he was writing about depression and he could get it out. And I do think we’re the happiest writers’ room because a lot of these issues like neo-Nazism and lone gunmen are pressing in on our lives and making our lives hard, and to get it out in a fictional form is not a bad thing.
M&C: On this past season of The Good Fight, you experimented with some new storytelling methods, such as animated segments, songs, and soliloquies direct-to-camera. Are these things you think you’re going to continue going forward?
Robert King: We were very happy with them, although, you know, there was that censorship…
M&C: You are referring to a 90-second animated sequence last season about Chinese censorship that CBS wouldn’t allow you to air, so instead you aired eight seconds of the words “CBS Has Censored This Content.”
I have to admit, I actually thought that was an intended part of the episode all along until I read more about it online. Can you explain what happened?
Robert King: First of all, to answer your question, we were excited about getting all these actors doing soliloquies and I think what we’ll do is selectively choose a place for them. With regards to the music, I definitely think we’ll do it.
We will try to find another way to use it where it’s not so tangential to the plot. We may try to continue the plot with some animated segment. With regards to the censorship, here’s the thing. I thought CBS handled it as well as they could, given the fact of how late we were in the process, and they were very kind to us when we were kind of being dickish about [threatening to] walk away. Which, I gotta tell you, was the easiest thing in the world to say, because we were so tired at that point. At that point, it’s so much easier to take a political stand!
M&C: Do you think that The Good Fight would be as political as it is if the 2016 election had gone the other way?
Robert King: Not at all. It is definitely about this moment in time, where politics seems to be culture. The Good Wife was more about culture than politics. But now the two are interchangeable, which is unfortunate.
M&C: Do you have two different plans for the show, based on how 2020 could go?
Robert King: We don’t yet, but you’ve got a good point. We have to develop it.
M&C: Will it be easier if Trump is reelected, or if he is not?
Robert King: Definitely easier if he’s reelected because there’s more story to tell. I’ve been surprised more TV shows don’t really dig into it, but I’m sure it’s not the most popular thing in the world to make statements about.
M&C: Timely statements, especially. How have you been so prescient about political events when you’ve written The Good Fight so many months before it airs?
Robert King: The good thing about doing network, and even All Access, is that one day you can write about something and a month later it can be on the air. With so much of binge TV, it’s about doing all your episodes first, and editing them at the same time. So it could be 12 months between when you started writing something and when you deliver it.
We do the same thing that I’m sure Vanity Fair does or anybody who has a long lead time. I would have guessed that Jeffrey Epstein would be still in the news a month and a half after his arrest. [Editor’s note: this interview occurred was when Epstein was still alive, in jail.] I would guess that because the richness of the material.
There are some issues about abortion coming up. You can guess that an issue regarding a movie that is up for an Academy Award, or you think will be, will be important in March. Although in the very first season of The Good Fight, we were going to do an episode about the movie Birth of a Nation, when there were some issues regarding its director.
We thought that would be a much bigger issue going into the Academy Awards. So we were writing initially an episode that was going to come out right around then. But then, Birth of a Nation didn’t do so well, and also we felt like it was kind of mean. So we dropped it, even though it was written, and started something new.
M&C: When you mentioned Jeffrey Epstein, it reminded me of the Bernie Madoff-esque storyline in season one. It was a scandal so multifaceted that it could clearly sustain an entire season. So is the Epstein story on your radar for one of your shows?
Robert King: We talk about it a lot in the writers’ room of Evil because clearly, it is as close as you get. But also, not just the main players like Epstein, but the supporting cast, the enablers. Vanity Fair had prepared an article that seemed to touch on [the scandal] and then that was withdrawn. That’s the same thing that happened with [Harvey] Weinstein for years.
It wasn’t just Weinstein. It was all these people who seemed to say, “All right, he’s too powerful, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.” That seems to be where the evil rests, is in the enabler.
M&C: So despite his evil, on The Good Fight, would Reddick, Bozeman be willing to defend someone like Epstein?
Robert King: Yes, definitely!