3 out of 5

Created by: David E. Kelley, Jonathan Shapiro

covers season 1

Slow-burn legal dramas are certainly nothing new for television.  The actual day-to-day drudgery of the legal system, and the sudden and stupid twists that can make or break cases – when filtered through TV dramatics – can amount to the kind of stranger-than-fiction that had made for compelling viewing, whether that slow-burn takes one episode or several.

And David Kelley is certainly no stranger to making such compelling, legal-themed shows.

So if we task the man with recreating his successes via the current streaming model – the all-at-once, don’t-worry-about-weekly-ratings, story-at-its-own-pace model, what happens?

Goliath, apparently.  A precisely cast and affectingly acted little-guy-versus-big-guy legal drama that, excepting the cable allowances of swearing and nudity, isn’t so far off from some of Kelley’s other productions, if maybe a bit more dour seeming.  The similarity isn’t a bad thing by any means, seeing as how if-it-ain’t-broke and yadda yadda, but the pressure of the auteur-type format cable had been peddling lately, wherein a sole creator writes or directs a whole season, can sometimes add a pressure to do something “more,” which Goliath does via its overly evil baddie, Donald Cooperman, played by William Hurt, and his evil-villain fire-scarred features and eccentric manner of communicating with people via CCTV, in darkened rooms, or solely with the sound of a clicking device he carries with him.  Hurt is fantastically creepy on the role, but its a little absurd.  A few more story absurdities collect along the way, inevitably distracting us from our core case and confusing the focus, arguably unnecessarily.   These same asides exist on most shows, of course, but it’s Goliath’s general grandiose presentation that causes them to stick out.  In other words: This may have actually fared better edited down for a non-cable network.

But would we have gotten the same cast?  Would the actual court proceedings have dug as deep?  So I’ll take the gravitas, as it earned us an intelligent drama that was afforded the space to explore its central case (and those wrapped up in it) with maturity and occasional deeper-than-usual depth.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Billy, a down-and-out once showcased lawyer who knows his shit but has trouble remembering clients’ names, who works out of a bar and occasionally employs a hooker as a PA, and whose ex-wife works for the firm which ousted him.  Some characters get the ol’ characterization shaft: Maria Bello (as ex-wife Michelle) in particular brings an incredible amount to a role which doesn’t give her enough to do, and Billy’s daughter, Denise (Diana Hopper), is truly just used as the advice-offering sage proxy, popping up to ground Billy when he’s at his most drunk.  Other characters are given more to do but somehow never feel fully justified in their dedication to events, namely Patty (Nina Arianda Matijcio), the other lawyer working with Billy, whose charmingly brash attitude sells us on the role more than the script bothers to do.

…However, it should be noted that though I’m saying the actors made these roles viable, Kelley is versed enough in TV to know how to skirt this stuff inoffensively, and the direction and plotty distractions are skillfully applied to keep us tuned in.  There’s just a contrast at work: the gripping core story versus the buffer extras, and… well, Billy Bob Thornton versus everyone else.  While Thronton’s role is a variation on the type of lived-in character he’s acted elsewhere, A. he does that role well, and B. There’s nothing wrong with typecasting the right type…  Which is selling short the nuance the actor can bring to such roles; he humanizes the alcoholic, standoffish lawyer in a way that makes us understand him almost immediately.  And I liked the distinction that he wasn’t “the world’s best lawyer” or some such hyperbole, just a good one who made it big and then – plot details revealed along the way explain why – argued himself into his current status. Goliath’s centerpiece is this character.  It’s sort of a redemption story, as Billy stumbles into the Big Corporate case, but not gregariously so.  The gregariousness, as mentioned, is left to the subplots; if there is a justification for that element, its the way it elevates the juxtaposing humbleness of Billy’s character and his evolution to the most gripping aspect of the series.

If it sounds a little crowded for space, it is.  The legal intricacies, which get a fair amount of focus early on, feel like they stall for spectacle later in the game, landing on a somewhat humdrum conclusion.  Many of the big ol’ subplot points fall to a similar fate.  But Thronton’s character survives.  You want him to be on screen at all times – this is amongst great acting jobs from the entire cast – and though his journey may happen on a micro level, possibly to end up where it started, it’s an exciting one to witness.  One I hope finds its way to another case for another season.