Patinkin plays a judge. Well, sort of. It is 'The Good Fight', after all.
Travis Johnson

7 Jul 2021 - 3:36 PM  UPDATED 8 Jul 2021 - 10:17 AM

The new season of The Good Fight returns to a much-changed world. After season 4 was cut short by three episodes due to the pandemic, season 5 opens with a kind of catch-up episode that gallops across a year’s worth of crises, developments, departures (so long Cush Jumbo and Delroy Lindo), and more. It’s a fantastic piece of TV, especially on a scripting level – where other shows may struggle to contend with incorporating recent real-world events into their narratives, The Good Fight takes the bit in its teeth.

But it’s not a reset button – the world in general and the Chicago legal community in the specific is still reeling from Covid-19, and the exact symptoms, if you’ll pardon the expression, crop up in unexpected ways.

Investigator-turned-lawyer Marissa (Sarah Steele), now an associate at Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart, discovers this in the second episode when she heads off for a court hearing that apparently doesn’t exist. Following the clues, she makes her way to the back room of a copy shop where a man has set up a makeshift courtroom with himself presiding as judge. What’s even weirder is actual lawyers with actual civil cases are showing up – as one explains, the backlog for hearings in the real judicial system is so long that many clients will take a quick, albeit technically non-binding, ruling rather than wait. It’s crazy, but it works.

Who’s the genius and/or madman behind this venture? Judge (not really) Hal Wackner, the copy shop proprietor. And he’s played, delightfully, by Mandy Patinkin.

Everybody loves Mandy Patinkin

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the simple addition of Mandy Patinkin can improve any creative venture. He’s been kicking goals across a swathe of media since the ’70s, the kind of all-round entertainer who draws fans from all walks of life. On stage, he inaugurated the role of Che in the original production of Evita and has been a consistent Broadway presence right up until 2011’s An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin (in a nice bit of symmetry, LuPone was the lead in Evita). He’s also released an impressive 19 albums with the latest, Children and Art, dropping in 2019.

On the big screen he had his first leading role in the 1983 Jewish musical drama Yentl, finding himself in a very off-kilter love triangle between Barbara Streisand and Amy Irving, but his most popular role is surely as the vengeful Spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya in Rob Reiner’s classic The Princess Bride (1987), stealing the limelight from ostensible leading man Cary Elwes. On TV he’s known for his leading role in Chicago Hope and, more recently, his turn as veteran CIA agent Saul Berenson, mentor to Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison, in the acclaimed and recently wrapped Homeland.

All rise for Judge Mandy

And now he’s fighting The Good Fight. In a series known for its impressive cast, it takes a lot to move the needle, but his appearance does just that.

Patinkin’s speciality as a performer, Sondheim’s songbook aside, is a rare combination of gravitas and lightness of touch, a wryness of humour mixed with an avuncular, almost rabbinical wisdom (raised in conservative Judaism, Patinkin first flexed his vocal cords singing in synagogue choirs). Patinkin’s dramatic roles are leavened with humour – even seasoned spook Saul “The Bear” gets off some good one-liners. His comedic turns are emotionally grounded – Inigo’s quest to avenge his father is easily the most engaging story element of The Princess Bride, thanks to his commitment to the bit. And now he brings that singular skill to the world of Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart.

As played by Patinkin, Wackner is capricious but authoritative. Not bound by the letter of the law, he allows hearsay and conjecture. He can be swayed by a good turn of phrase, or a song lyric (he’s a big fan of The Grateful Dead). He gets his bailiff to keep score on a chalkboard like he was tracking frames in a pool hall. Hardened lawyers get flustered under his stern, lightly mocking gaze. The public gallery occasionally cheers.

It shouldn’t work, but it does. Narratively, Wackner’s court (dubbed Court 9¾ in a nod to Harry Potter) functions because, in the absence of a smoothly running judicial system, this is the recourse available, and all agree to abide by his rulings. Dramatically it works because, hey, it’s Mandy Patinkin, and the list of other performers who could pull off this role with such elan is short indeed.

The Good Fight airs Thursday nights at 8:30pm on SBS, with episodes then available anytime at SBS On Demand. Stream episode 1 now.

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