Last week, in the legal-drama series “The Good Fight,” starring Christine Baranski, a musical segment criticizing Chinese censorship was itself censored, by CBS.
Last Thursday, fans of “The Good Fight”—the darkly funny Trump-era spinoff of “The Good Wife,” created by the married showrunners Robert and Michelle King, which is currently airing, barely, on the locked-garden streaming site called CBS All Access—were faced with something unusual. A placard reading “CBS HAS CENSORED THIS CONTENT” filled the screen, silently, for eight and a half seconds. To many viewers, it looked like a joke. It wasn’t.
In fact, CBS had censored that week’s “Good Fight Short,” one of a series of “Schoolhouse Rock!”-like cartoons—written and performed by the singer Jonathan Coulton and animated by Steve Angel, the co-founder of the Canadian shop Head Gear Animation—that punctuate the legal drama, educating viewers on topics like impeachment and Russian trolls. The segment had been fully written and animated, then vetted by legal and run through all the regular corporate oversight. Then, less than two weeks before the episode was going to air, CBS told the Kings to cut the animated sequence. In response, the co-creators threatened to stop writing the show. In a subsequent conversation, the two sides reached what CBS called a “creative solution”: the Kings wouldn’t quit, but CBS would agree to display that placard where the short was meant to go.
The Kings’ initial plan was to leave the placard up for the entire ninety seconds that the song was meant to run, accompanied by a countdown clock. During the sound mix, they reconsidered: that approach felt potentially self-indulgent and bratty, and maybe punishing to viewers. Eight and a half seconds of protest seemed like enough, after which they would cut back to the regular episode. As a result, many “Good Fight” viewers interpreted the sign as a satirical gesture, not a real indication that CBS had censored a forbidden subject. “It did not occur to me that people would think that it was a joke—until, literally, we saw our family this weekend and people didn’t realize it had happened,” Michelle King told me.
So what was the forbidden subject? “The Good Fight” has featured musical segments about “the pee-pee tape” and the N.S.A., not to mention a moving, melancholic cartoon about immigration, in which Melania Trump was pictured in bed with President Donald Trump, as Coulton sang, “Poor huddled masses that yearn to breathe free / Does she feel tired of winning?” As Michelle Goldberg wrote last week in the Times, the show has become a cathartic outlet for viewers traumatized by the Trump era. Set at a majority-African-American law firm, where Diane Lockhart, a regal litigator played by Christine Baranski, is now a partner, it’s a series about élite liberals who have been radicalized by the times; in a recent sequence, one character made an argument for punching Nazis, in a direct address to the camera. (That sequence went viral, then got attacked by Infowars.) The show also hasn’t shied away from criticizing the behavior of institutions that resemble CBS. This season—which was written after the firing of the CBS C.E.O. Les Moonves, after he was accused of repeated sexual misconduct—the firm’s partners discovered that its founder had committed sexual assault and then voted to conceal these crimes with nondisclosure agreements.
Coulton told me that the censored song is called “Banned in China.” (Full disclosure: Coulton is a friend of mine and recently paid me to appear as a guest on an extremely nerdy cruise-ship event.) It begins with a verse about the fact that “The Good Wife” itself had been banned in China, in 2014, possibly in reprisal for a Season 2 episode called “The Great Firewall,” which portrayed a Google-like company, called ChumHum, exposing a Chinese dissident to government torture. The next verse of the song is about the way that media companies censor content, with animations of movie scenes being snipped out of film strips.
Then comes the bridge, which lists other things banned in China, many of them symbolic images that Chinese citizens use on social-networking sites to evade censors. These include an empty chair (representing the late Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo), Winnie the Pooh (who is said to resemble China’s leader, Xi Jinping), and “the letter ‘N’ and Tiananmen Square”—a reference to the fact that the letter “N” was briefly banned in China, because it was perceived as a coded reference to the elimination of Presidential term limits. One animation showed the Chinese leader, dressed as Winnie the Pooh, shaking his bare bottom. Another showed Chinese reëducation camps.
The song is clear about one of the motives for American self-censorship: China is too big of a market for media corporations to ignore. Like the episode around it, the lyrics touch on the notion that Western culture might help spread democratic ideals, even under censored conditions—but it’s ultimately damning about how easily what might begin as a pragmatic compromise can become an excuse for greed. The clip ends with Coulton, in animated form, singing that he hopes his song gets banned in China—something that can’t happen now, given that it was preëmptively removed by CBS.
Michelle King confirmed for me that “the cartoon was about American entertainment and companies censoring themselves in order to appease the Chinese market.” The Kings would not describe for me internal conversations at CBS about the company’s motives for censoring the segment, but Coulton said that the network’s standards-and-practices division had expressed concern that such a sequence would endanger CBS executives on the ground in China. For the Canadian animation company involved in making the clip, this is a visceral context, because Canada is currently embroiled in a clash with China: two Canadian citizens have been detained as payback for the arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, who was imprisoned, in December, in Vancouver, on a U.S. warrant.
Stanley Rosen, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California who also teaches courses on Chinese film, expressed doubt that airing such a cartoon would have exposed CBS employees to risk, although, he added, that might depend on whether network executives were seen as personally responsible for the segment. He emphasized that, in Hollywood, financial concerns about offending China are generally paramount and nothing new: in 1997, three major movie studios were temporarily banned from the country, after they produced the films “Kundun,” “Seven Years in Tibet,” and “Red Corner.” (The ban on all three was lifted by the end of 2000.) Rosen said, “Your whole brand, your whole company, is subject to the most offensive thing in your repertoire. People have learned from past mistakes—I don’t want to say past mistakes, but past decisions.”
Michelle King described her reactions to CBS’s demands as “very surprised and upset.” After all, the network had been aware of everything in the segment throughout its development. Robert King added, “Can I say parenthetically here, we’re not the bad kids at the table—we love all the people at the table, at CBS. This is an unusual circumstance.” The Kings have a reputation as a clever, network-friendly team of showrunners in a field rife with temperamental pay-cable auteurs. They are proud of their ability to roll with the collaborative punches, to build provocative episodes with deceptively conventional surfaces. (Admittedly, these surfaces have become more surreal in the current political landscape. One recent “Good Fight” episode includes a scene in which a devilish MAGA litigator, played by Michael Sheen, gets Roger Stone’s face tattooed on his back.)
In the scene that precedes the “CENSORED BY CBS” placard, the lawyers argue heatedly with the C.E.O. of ChumHum, the Google-like company, about Chinese censorship. It was the climax of a plot in which a prominent First Amendment lawyer, played by a rumpled, deadpan Alan Alda, takes a case involving a Milo Yiannopoulos–like figure—which turns out to be a pretext for the lawyer’s real target, Praying Mantis, an algorithm designed to accommodate Chinese law. (The story was clearly inspired by Google’s Dragonfly prototype.) “It’s the Chinese market,” the ChumHum executive explains to her lawyers. “You need to toe the line or you get frozen out of the market.” On the stand, her P.R. manager testifies, more callowly, “There are eight hundred million Web users in China, O.K.? You have to dance while the music’s playing.”
Those scenes aired without any cuts. And, on current TV, “The Good Fight” is not alone in showing Chinese politics in a critical light: such arcs can be found on shows from “Veep” to “Madam Secretary.” But what gets banned in China is perverse and unpredictable—and rarely explained, which leads to executives struggling to avoid subjects for which there are no easy rules. CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory” is banned. So is Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman.” Yet Netflix’s “House of Cards,” which featured a plot about Chinese corruption, was a huge hit in China, with Chinese officials expressing delight at its debased portrait of American democracy. (Rosen argues that Beijing ignored the flip side: some Chinese viewers were impressed that the U.S. government didn’t ban the show, and they saw reflections of their own officials’ behavior in the schemes of Frank Underwood.)
According to the journalist Isaac Stone Fish, a former editor at Foreign Policy and a contributing columnist at the Washington Post who is currently working on a book about China’s influence on America, the Chinese government places far less pressure on television shows than on movies, which plan ahead for the Chinese markets. “In movies, a story like that wouldn’t get written, and if it got written it wouldn’t get directed,” he told me. He agrees with Rosen that, when Hollywood censors one of its productions, the concern is more about money than about employee safety. Whereas N.G.O.s sometimes soften their statements on human-rights abuses in China in order to protect affiliates inside the country, this has rarely been an issue for American media companies. Aynne Kokas, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and the author of “Hollywood Made in China,” has been alarmed by recent crackdowns and heightened censorship. She told me that she found the network’s explanation plausible. “This is an increasingly sensitive time for people travelling to China for business reasons,” she said.
As it happens, the episode of “The Good Fight” with the censored cartoon contains another inflammatory scene: a monologue about China’s oppression of its Uighur Muslim minority. On the stand, an Uighur activist testifies about the roundup of a million Uighurs, describing the government forcing them to sing hymns praising the Communist Party and to write self-critical essays. She accuses ChumHum of having turned her e-mails over to the Chinese government, causing her family to be apprehended. “My friends, my husband, two sisters, my brother—are all in internment camps in Xinjiang,” she says, her voice breaking.
So why wasn’t that scene flagged? Maybe because it isn’t as likely to go viral. Maybe because it isn’t funny and musical. Maybe because the dialogue would need to be translated for it to make an impact. Visual images move globally with ease, not just because they are simple and universal but because they can’t be picked up as easily by artificial-intelligence algorithms. It’s worth noting that the provocations that the Kings have created on “The Good Fight” have only been allowed to air in the limited space of CBS All Access. Their place there creates a Catch-22: despite the service’s Orwellian title, the show reaches few viewers and rarely enters the public conversation. A cartoon and a song can travel. Like the quasi-ironic, just-kidding memes that guide so much of political expression today—which are the subject of one of the show’s cartoon segments, “Cartoon Nazi Frog”—the “Good Fight” shorts have a wide blast radius.
It’s hard to imagine that “Banned in China” won’t make it onto the Internet eventually. Doesn’t everything? For now, however, that’s the one part of “The Good Fight” that Americans are not allowed to see. “It was my favorite segment of the season,” Steve Angel, the animator, told me, wistfully, during a tightly controlled conversation in which CBS publicists were on the line. “Maybe sometime down the road, when cooler heads prevail, you’ll be able to see it.”
Laura Marks, who wrote the episode, heard an early audio version of the song, which she described as “not just very clever but hard-hitting and chilling.” When she heard that the segment was killed, she was surprised by how upset she was. “I mean, on the face, it’s so absurd! They censored a song about censorship,” she told me. “I know it should be funny, but it’s not.” Coulton, having followed debates about censorship for years, added, “It’s very strange to suddenly be in it and watch it actually happen.” He has the right to release the songs in the future, under certain conditions, but not the rights to the animation. His song, he said, feels less pointed without Angel’s resonant images: “I do a little poke, and they’ll make it a big stab with a sword.”
Michelle King said that she and her husband are O.K. with the compromise; Robert King describes his decision not to quit as having been driven, to some extent, by loyalty to the cast. But it’s clear that the show’s creators want people to know that the placard was more than a joke: it was an arrow pointed at what was going on behind the scenes. The Kings also expressed support for Coulton and Angel, to whom they’ve given almost total creative freedom, marvelling at the team’s ability to capture complex issues in short, entertaining packages. “We want them back next year, if they’ll have us,” Robert King said.
“The Good Fight” was just picked up for a fourth season. Meanwhile, the Kings are working on a few other projects: one is an adaptation of an Israeli show, for Showtime, called “Your Honor”; the other, “Evil,” for regular CBS, will explore the conflict between science and religion. Robert King is a practicing Catholic; Michelle is a secular Jew. “Evil” is about the world’s moral decline—something they do agree on—and clashing visions of its origins. “It’s a reaction to how bad people are these days,” Robert King explained.