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'Big Little Lies,' 'The Good Fight' show what the money is for

Good television comes at a price on Sunday, as HBO launches Big Little Lies, a scenic murder mystery with an A-list cast that includes Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, and CBS teases viewers with the first episode of its promising spin-off of The Good Wife before sending The Good Fight off to earn its keep on the network's subscription service.

Both shows are better, in different ways, than they might have been in less-pricey venues, but they're also a reminder that more and more, we're getting the TV we pay for.

That's not new, but as cable or satellite bills are joined by those for streaming services -- and the high-speed internet you need to watch them -- I can't blame the readers who occasionally call to say they've had enough of hearing about shows they can't afford to see.

When I started writing about television in the '90s, before HBO's game-changing The Sopranos, the job was about starting conversations about series like NYPD Blue or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, available to anyone with an antenna or very basic cable. If someone wanted to watch what I considered dreck, why not? All they wasted was time.

Now, like movie reviews, TV criticism has a consumer component: Is a Netflix subscription worth it? Would cutting the cord on cable cut you off from too much? And is HBO (or Showtime, or Starz) worth the hefty premium?

All I can do is point to what might be worth your time or money.

'The Good Fight'

The Good Fight might be worth paying for, but I wish it didn't feel like a surrender by CBS, which for seven seasons supported creators Robert and Michelle King in making a show that in its best years was as smart as anything on cable.

The first original series for CBS All Access, a $5.99-a-month streaming service that features current CBS network shows as well as an extensive library of older series, The Good Fight will, among other things, feature Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) uttering a word we never heard on The Good Wife. It premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on CBS as well as All Access before restricting the rest of its 10-episode season to subscribers.

If that one series proves reason enough for you to sign up, what you'd be paying for -- beyond those very occasional f-bombs -- is a continuation of the Kings' topical approach to legal drama, this time starring Good Wife veterans Baranski, Cush Jumbo, and Sarah Steele, as well as Delroy Lindo, Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey), Erica Tazel (Justified), and Justin Bartha (The Hangover).

Freed of the played-out story line about the transformation of a politician's wronged wife (Julianna Margulies' Alicia Florrick is mentioned, but unseen), the spin-off has fewer, but longer, episodes, leaving less time for commercials (an ad-free option is $4 more).

Because the money of subscribers over 50 is as good as anyone else's, The Good Fight can afford to be the show ad-dependent broadcasters believe they can't risk: one with a dynamic sixtysomething woman at its center.

Sunday's premiere begins with a closeup on Baranski's face as a horrified Diane watches Donald Trump take the oath of office. Before you hit send on that snowflake comment, please consider that the Kings came down hard on some Obama administration policies, especially in the areas of privacy and national security, and have never left Diane's politics unchallenged, or ignored her occasional hypocrisy.

A Madoff-like scandal is about to push the designer-dressed lefty out of her comfort zone, and opens new opportunities for the writers to explore issues of real-life lawyering that don't seem to come up in other TV shows.

But the best news about The Good Fight is that it takes a character a lot of us have loved for years and challenges her to be better, and less complacent, than she's ever been -- with no guarantee that she'll succeed.

'Big Little Lies'

The discovery of a dead body outside an elementary school fund-raiser in Monterey, Calif., kicks off HBO's seven-episode limited series Big Little Lies, at 9 p.m. Sunday.

Who's dead? Don't ask me. I made a point of not reading the Liane Moriarty best seller on which the show is based, and six episodes in, I'm still in the dark.

What I do know: This star-studded adaptation by David E. Kelley (Boston Legal, Ally McBeal), directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), takes a story that would have worked on Lifetime or Bravo and justifies the HBO treatment without spoiling the fun of a story about helicopter parenting in a community where some parents might have access to actual helicopters.

Oscar-winner Witherspoon brings her Type-A+ game to Madeline, a hyperactive stay-at-home mom who befriends Jane (Divergent's Shailene Woodley), a young single mother who's new to Monterey. Jane runs afoul of Laura Dern's character, Renata, as their two children begin first grade together, along with Madeline's daughter and the twin sons of Madeline's best friend, Celeste (Kidman), and, with a little help from Madeline, first-grade politics quickly spin out of control.

Everyone has secrets, and, yes, lies. And a lot of Big Little Lies, from the to-kill-for ocean views to the kitchens, constitutes affluence porn. But there's honest emotion here, too, as well as small moments, like an unexpected one between Dern and Woodley late in the series, that help Big Little Lies float above the suds of soapy guilty pleasure.