David E. Kelley on His 'Goliath' Plan, Working With Amazon and the "Fallout" of Peak TV

The 10-time Emmy winner also discusses broadcast's more "market-driven" focus and reveals what's on his DVR.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios; David Livingston/Getty Images
Billy Bob Thornton in Amazon’s 'Goliath'; David E. Kelley (inset)

For most of the '90s, David E. Kelley was one of broadcast television's most prolific producers. Since making the jump from the courtroom to the writers' room in 1986 for L.A. Law, Kelley enjoyed a nearly unprecedented winning streak, having a hand in crafting hits like Doogie Howser, M.D., Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Public and Boston Legal, among others. He's not only one of the few writers to have called each of the Big Four home, he's the only producer in history to win the Emmy for best comedy series and best drama series in the same night.

However, for his first series in two years, Kelley is in — or rather on — very unfamiliar territory. His legal drama Goliath, which he co-created with fellow Practice grad Jonathan Shapiro, launches its entire eight-episode first season Friday on Amazon. Goliath, starring Billy Bob Thornton and William Hurt as former law partners turned courtroom opponents, marks his first for a streamer, and will soon be followed by his limited series Big Little Lies, his first for a pay cabler (it is set to debut on HBO in 2017).

It's a transition that the 10-time Emmy winner has embraced whole-heartedly, having told reporters at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour that he was likely done with broadcast television.

Ahead of Goliath's premiere, Kelley spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about how he ended up at Amazon, the one negative of Peak TV and why he feels like "a dinosaur in the new world."

You're best known for legal dramas so what made you want to come revisit the genre at this time and in this more serialized way?

Jonathan Shapiro and I worked together on The Practice and Boston Legal and we're both sort of law addicts and finally admitted that it's not an addiction we're going to recover from. We were kicking around new law mediums and we always were drawn to the shows that could tell stories over multiple episodes. We came from the world of self-contained hours at ABC and thought wouldn't it be great to really get myopic with one piece of litigation and break down the mechanics of the case and, even more so, examine the corrupting influences of litigation or what it can do to the players. So that led to the idea of coming up with a case where these two former best friends who are now pitted against each other and following the case itself but also the professional and emotional ethics that went along with it.

Goliath is your first project in two years. Why the break? How do you think that time away from TV affected your writing?

That's a good question. I'm not sure I'm equipped to answer it now, I might be when I step back and look at it. The process didn’t feel different from other shows I worked on other than the fact that we didn’t have to do commercials and we didn't need to wrap up storylines within 41 minutes. We could be a little more patient in our storytelling and mine some depths that you couldn’t get into when we were in the broadcast sprint. I think the thing I've always loved most about the work, even in broadcast, was exploring character and I think that remains true in this series. But we even got to do it more deeply because of the format and also we were blessed with such a strong ensemble of actors in this particular show that it quickly turned into a franchise with great opportunities for exploring character.

Knowing that you wanted to do something a little more serialized and less procedural, how was it figuring where would be the right home for this show? Particularly since so many platforms have popped up in the last few years?

Well, that's an excellent question and I really feel kind of like a dinosaur in the new world. I always started from a place of, what is it we want to write? Let's write it and hope that there's a network that will support it and a constituency in viewers that will support it at that network, and that game, as your question suggests, is just so different. Networks are very specific in their brand, they're more targeted on what kind of audiences and demos they're going after. So you can write a given show that will be good for one network and not for another. Fortunately, or luckily, we got to avoid all that because we crafted the show, at least in outline form, and we pitched it to Amazon first, and they ordered it. But now being a little bit smarter just by the virtue of being at Amazon and asking, how do we promote it? What is our targeted audience? And not being privy to that data it begs the question of, who are our consumers? And that's a question that a lot of storytellers are facing now.

We never sat down and formulated a plan of, OK, where do we take this beast? But I think that probably, going forward, there is some merit to that very meeting. If you're going to develop a television show, it is good to be mindful of what's the best place to maximize the potential of that show. We just happened to go to Amazon first and they bought it, and it worked out well for us and I hope for them. So we got to avoid the process.

How concerned are you about not knowing those numbers and not knowing what the demo for this show? Or the fact that you might not know right away what the numbers are, particularly since you're coming from broadcast? How are you adjusting?

It's a little disconcerting, not a lot. I feel lucky that I'm kind of an old dinosaur in the business and I feel lucky that I still get to write and tell stories. I'm a little philosophical about that, but the main thing I'm after is being able to kind of write the show that we want and then you just hope that there's an audience for it. I think if I were starting out, I might be a little more daunted because ... I don't understand the science of so much of the television world now. It's just very, very different. It used to be you make a show, and if it's appealing enough, enough people will watch it and you will earn your longevity with that ticket. Now, it's much more data-driven and specific audiences and consumer groups are mated with different brands and its very, very scientific. Interestingly, what coincides with Goliath is it's also true in law. It used to be, when we started doing law shows way back when with L.A. Law, the burden for the litigator was being able to tell a good story and being able to persuade 12 people in a box that the merits are in your favor. Now, big law has become also very scientific and data-driven. In fact, litigation rarely even gets to the courtroom so those 12 people in a box are much less relevant. You have algorithms involved now and the prosecution and defense of a lawsuit are much, much more scientific and data-driven than they ever used to be. It's an interesting sort of correlation between the way the world of law has evolved and the world of television.

Do you think that change in the television world towards being more data-driven is good for TV or bad for TV?

It is probably good and bad. The good part is the fracturing of the universe allows for more television shows to exist and more cult favorites to find your viewers. More boutique shows and more specific shows that don't have to appeal to broad demographics can still be successful. I think the one fallout is to the extent that shows have to fit in to a specific brand. If there are shows that transcend those boundaries, they may have a harder time. I haven’t really experienced it yet myself, but I foresee that as a possible negative consequence. For the most part, you can look at the television landscape today and you look at the wealth of good material that's being done. It's hard not to walk away very encouraged because it's a very rich medium and there are shows that are succeeding today that never could have in the three-network landscape because they wouldn’t have brought enough appeal.

Why did you go to Amazon first? Why were they the right fit?

There was no real master plan. We decided to go to Amazon first because they were the new kids on the block. Netflix had just come out with House of Cards, they were sort of the "it" streaming venue of two years ago where everybody wanted to [go]. So we thought, 'OK, well, Amazon is getting into the game, too, they may be in need of more product.' We didn't know that, we were just guessing. We had heard good things about their operation, that people had worked for Amazon thought it to be a good experience. So we were going to take this show and set up meetings and go from one to the other and hopefully find a good home for it. We happened to go to Amazon first. We had a great meeting with [Amazon head of drama] Morgan Wandell and [Amazon Studios chief] Roy Price, and we all got [excited] with the idea of doing the show there and it happened. It was one of those fortuitous plank walks.

What would you say is the biggest difference between working on a broadcast network and working at a streamer like Amazon?

The biggest thing you notice right away is there's no need for self-containment with the episodes, there's no need for act breaks and that's a big deal. You get 60 minutes if you want it, as opposed to being limited to 41. There are no real creative constraints, so there's more freedom. The actual experience of working with an Amazon, it was very positive. They were looking for writers and creators and producers who were passionate about their show and wanted to fuel those passions so we could make it everything we wanted to make it. And I think that the — and you'd have to speak to them about what their business mantra is — but it seemed to be that if we let the creators really surrender to their passion then their passion will show up on the screen and result in a good product. In network, I think it tends to be now much more market-driven even from the conception — you must hit these marks, you must speak to these demos. So I think that there's a little bit more intervention in the origins of a show at the broadcast level than there may be in the streaming worlds.

You spoke a little bit at TCA about the difference in accessing and streaming a show on Amazon versus the traditional model of simply turning on the TV and switching to what channel you want. Since then, have you gotten more used to watching shows on Amazon?

I'm getting used to it. And I get told by many people, "Don't ever say that again because it makes you look old." (Laughs.) The youth of America has no problem surfing the landscape of the streaming world, it's just old farts like me that you need one gadget to sync up with another before you can watch something. I find it more of a challenge, but Amazon has gotten more user-friendly. I've gotten a little more sophisticated myself although I'll probably always want someone younger nearby when a gadget is involved. But, yeah, it's different.

Another difference in the modern TV landscape is that shows don't run for as many seasons. It's rare to have an ER or Law & Order that runs for 15 or 20 seasons. How long do you see Goliath running? Do you have a set plan for the future?

Well, we originally thought three years, that would be great. It could go more; it could go less. But if we were told, "OK, you can only have one year, here's the deal, one year and one year only," that would have been fine with us. We had a story to tell over eight episodes, and we wanted to tell it and if that gives rise to year two — and we certainly hope it does because we have another to tell behind it — that's great. As television has evolved, I think one of the great positives is that the short form is flourishing. I just did a one-off seven-hour series for HBO [Big Little Lies], we did this [over] eight hours on Amazon. And they both conceivably can go to year two or year three, but if it's only year one, there's closure at the end of them and I think it has currency and value even as a one-year project. And we're seeing more of that on both cable and streaming things. Shows don't have to be designed to run in perpetuity. If there's a show that's viable for one season or two seasons or three seasons, those stories are worth telling too.

Would it be a new case in season two? Would it be new characters?

It would definitely be a new case. There are other cases that come behind it. So if we're lucky, we'll get to go on to year two.

Would the same characters come back?

Not all of them, but some of them.

With the changes in the TV landscape that you mentioned earlier, how do you think those have influenced the kind of projects you gravitate towards?

At this point, it's not that my race has run, but I'm at a point where I only want to do shows that feel like fun projects to write and ones that maybe have a chance at resonating with viewers. I don't think there's any one recipe for that. So I don't have any kind of game plan, there are no marching orders to my agent or network that I want to do this or that. I'm perfectly content to take them one at a time and if the shows feel like they will be fun to write and they maybe have something to say in respect to either issues or exploring character, then I'm happy to do them. I still love writing, it's my favorite thing to do. The very next thing that I'm working on is a genre I've never really explored before, it's the adaptation of a Stephen King book [Mr. Mercedes]. It's very, very character-driven and we got Brendan Gleeson to play the lead and that's hugely exciting because he's such a gifted character actor who can give you pathos and comedy and drama. So that's what I'm onto immediately next and looking forward to doing that. Beyond that, let's take it as it comes. Hopefully there's a year two of Goliath, but I guess one of the upsides of being old is I don't have to lay out the architecture of the future. I'm just going to take them one project at a time at this point.

Finally, what's on your DVR these days? What are you watching?

I'm trying to stop watching the news because it's depressing. (Laughs.) But I am a news junkie and a sports junkie. I do watch serialized shows. The latest show that I watched and loved was The Night Of, I was riveted by that, and loved the O.J. show [People v. O.J. Simpson] on FX and especially loved the ESPN documentary on O.J. [O.J.: Made in America] as well. Those are the things that I've watched most recently, but looking forward to watching Westworld. I haven't gotten to that one yet, that just started. And then, of course, I'm from New England, so I'm required by law to watch the Patriots. I'm obeying the law.

The entire first season of Goliath premieres Friday on Amazon.