There must’ve been a few nervous moments this summer when critics tripped over themselves to rave about HBO’s boundary-pushing legal drama The Night Of and Amazon realized that its fall legal drama Goliath was also about a down-and-out shambling attorney (played by a Coen brothers veteran) with a mockable-but-serious medical problem and a relationship with a stray animal who’s thrust into the biggest case of his career against an implacable adversary with a love of opera music.
This is not to accuse Goliath creators David E. Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro of stealing from The Night Of or its British source, but it’s a reminder that underdog legal sagas are often mighty similar, as John Grisham and his streak of basically interchangeable thrillers could attest to. And just as you don’t turn to Guy Fieri if what you really want is refined French dining, we’ve passed the point at which you turn to David E. Kelley if what you want to do is rewrite the rules of the legal genre.
Goliath premieres on Amazon on Friday and through six of its eight episodes, it’s the most conventional and familiar of legal thrillers, with shades of Grisham, A Civil Action, The Verdict, Anatomy of a Murder and too many others to mention. What keeps Goliath watchable, and it’s certainly quite watchable, is the superlative ensemble cast, particularly Billy Bob Thornton, whose gift at taking predictably quirky characters and making the beats of that quirkiness slightly off-kilter is close to unmatched.
Thornton plays Billy McBride, formerly the hottest of hotshots, the silver-tongued attorney the juries loved. Billy is now living at a rundown motel in Venice Beach. He’s an alcoholic, suffering from sleep apnea, divorced from his wife (Maria Bello) and apathetically settling court-appointed cases for a few bucks. Everything changes when a stranger (Nina Arianda) brings him a quickie case that turns out to be related to a major company with shady government ties represented by Billy’s former partner Donald Cooperman (William Hurt), the head of a cutthroat firm that also employs Billy’s ex. Soon, Billy’s trying to straighten himself out and rekindle the sparks of his genius, but as the case gets more twisted, he may be fighting for his life as well as his career.
See what I mean? You’ve seen this before, often involving Tom Cruise running or Matthew McConaughey sweating.
After six episodes, there’s very little I could tell you about this life-changing case Billy is trying to get to the bottom of. There’s an explosion on a fishing boat that leads to wrongful death charges and ever so much argle-bargle. With not quite a total MacGuffin, but it’s close. All you need to know is that there’s information to be uncovered that some people or entities would kill to keep secure.
Basically, it’s very important to the people within the show and probably won’t be important to you. It certainly wasn’t important to me. After six episodes, there’s nothing I need to learn more about and no result will impact my feeling about the show, which marks a clear difference from The Night Of.
Goliath is less about the case than about the thrill of the case, it’s about the pleasures of an adversarial processes when the stakes are high and the people involved really, really enjoy using every loophole, legal or otherwise, at their disposal.
“Donald hates Billy McBride more than any human on the Earth and Donald is one of life’s truly magnificent haters,” Cooperman’s colleague Callie, played with increasing relish by Molly Parker, tells pathologically nervous young associate Luke (Olivia Thirlby, feigning awkwardness hiding behind huge classes). Lucy starts off as a stuttering ingenue, but when she finds herself in these chum-filled waters, will it turn out that she has a taste for blood? And might it turn out that Billy’s hatred for Donald runs every bit as deep and that his hating skills are every bit as refined?
Goliath is a show of hearings, pre-trial motions and desperate appeals, interspersed with threats, murder and sexual power plays and if I didn’t know better, I’d say that the latter were purposely made forgettable to emphasize the bloody viciousness of justice.
I don’t know if we have any actor better when it comes to illustrating the slow shift and rev of intellectual gears than Thornton, whose transition from sloppy and laconic to sharp and venal is always a pleasure to behold. From his Midwestern background to his love of Hoosiers, Billy has been crafted around the things that Thornton does best and Billy is one of several characters whose guiding linguistic principle seems to be, “David E. Kelley has worked on network TV for too long and really enjoys letting characters swear.” From drunken slurring to clever courtroom antics to a series of bad decisions pushing him into cable antihero territory, Billy gives Thornton lots to play and several worthy foils to play against.
I’ll watch additional episodes of Goliath not because I care about the progression of the wrongful death case, but because I want to see resolutions of a number of character dynamics, including the relationship between Billy and hooker-turned-legal assistant Brittany (Tania Raymonde). It’s possible I’ll end up being annoyed by the archness of what Goliath is trying to say about female ambition and its connection to sexuality through Callie and Lucy’s characters — this is always a Kelley fascination, but one he sometimes bungles — but both Parker and Thirlby look like they’re having fun.
Through no fault of their own, Hurt and Bello have been the big disappointments for me in the episodes I’ve seen. I figured the combination of Hurt’s capacity for playing quietly creepy monsters and Kelley’s pleasure in writing cartoonish grotesques might temper each other in a memorable villain, but Cooperman’s enigmatic threat is all on the surface — his only-sometimes-noticable facial scarring, his Queeg-esque manipulation of an odd clicker, his insistence on sitting in red-bathed darkness and his love of opera — that any effort to go deeper instantly feels contrived. And with Michelle, I’m assuming that things will happen in the last two episodes to justify why you needed an actress as good as Maria Bello to play this role.
Goliath does nicely with its Los Angeles settings, whether the deceptively baroque inside of a downtown courtroom or the fabricated canals and the scuzzy-meets-snazzy beaches of Venice. The directors throw in enough glitz and SoCal landmarks that you can pretend that little about the story or characters feels organic to the location.
This is a genre that is often about putting the system on trial, but Kelley and Shapiro are strangely stuck between condemning a process that’s so weighed against the little guy and getting off on a process in which the cleverness of the little guy holds great, manipulative power. They have fun with that, but nothing they’re discovering is revelatory. Fortunately, when you have Billy Bob Thornton at the center of your story, the quality of the yarn you’re spinning is secondary to just giving the star enough to do. At least Goliath succeeds at that.
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Maria Bello, Molly Parker, William Hurt, Olivia Thirlby, Nina Arianda, Tania Raymonde
Creators: David E. Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro
Premieres: Friday (Amazon)