There are few things Hollywood loves more than an underdog tale about a down-and-out lawyer trying the case of a lifetime. “Goliath,” a briskly entertaining legal drama premiering Friday on Amazon, proves this age-old formula has life in it yet.
In the eight-episode series, created by David E. Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro, Billy Bob Thornton is Billy McBride, a gifted attorney whose once-thriving career has long since been derailed by drink. The co-founder of a behemoth multinational firm, Cooperman & McBride, where his ex-wife, Michelle (Maria Bello), still happens to work, Billy now spends his days holed up at Chez Jay, the famous Santa Monica dive bar, and operating a two-bit legal business out of his room at the Ocean Lodge Hotel.
His shot at redemption arrives fortuitously, just moments after he’s been fired for not remembering a client’s name, via an unlikely messenger. Patty Solis-Papagian (Nina Arianda), a small-ball lawyer from the Valley (whose tongue-twister of a name is a recurring joke in the series), asks for his help in a wrongful death suit against a shadowy military contractor represented by — you guessed it — Cooperman & McBride.
Initially reluctant to take the case, Billy is unable to resist the opportunity to stick it to his cartoonishly evil former partner, Donald Cooperman (William Hurt), and right what appears to be a terrible injustice. With the odds already stacked against him, Billy does himself no favors by carrying on an unethical affair with his wistful blond client (Ever Carradine) or hiring a bright but coke-addicted call girl as his legal secretary (Tania Raymonde).
As its title would suggest, “Goliath” is a redemptive story about an unlikely hero rising up against a daunting foe. There’s nothing radical or particularly groundbreaking about it. If anything, it is conventional in an almost self-conscious way. Billy’s favorite movie is “Hoosiers,” the ultimate non-biblical underdog tale, which he watches late at night while battling sleep apnea.
The cast of archetypal characters includes a Hooker With a Heart of Gold (Raymonde), a Wise-Beyond-Her-Years Teenager (Diana Hopper) and even a Young Woman Who Is Obviously Gorgeous But No One Can Tell Because She’s Wearing Glasses (Olivia Thirlby).
But at its best, “Goliath” suggests the creative possibilities that arise when writers steeped in the broadcast television tradition are liberated to tell heavily serialized, character-driven, morally complicated stories without the arbitrary limitations imposed by networks.
Shapiro is a veteran writer-producer with credits including “The Blacklist,” while anyone who turned on a television between 1995 and 2005 is likely familiar with Kelley’s work. A prolific writer-producer with a knack for sophisticated yet broadly accessible legal shows like “The Practice,” Kelley was once known as the king of prime time, and has the mountain of Emmys to prove it.
“Goliath” marks his return to the medium several years after “Harry’s Law,” a legal drama on NBC starring Kathy Bates, which was axed despite solid ratings because its audience skewed too old. Broadcast television has undoubtedly been kind to Kelley, but it’s easy to understand why he was tempted to test the streaming waters.
Kelley and Shapiro are writers with the kind of discipline that comes from working in ad-supported television but have now been given room to breathe. Even though most episodes of the show run close to a full hour, they rarely feel slack or sluggish — a common affliction in streaming shows — and often end in tantalizing cliffhangers.
They also understand that a show needn’t be unrelentingly gloomy or morose to be taken seriously, and that a bit of levity is a good thing in a drama. (Kelley has always been an expert genre-blurrer, most notably in “Ally McBeal,” his musically infused legal dramedy). The sun-soaked “Goliath” even looks different than most would-be prestige dramas, which increasingly appear as if they were filmed during a blackout.
But what truly elevates “Goliath” are the performances by Thornton and Arianda. There’s something about Thornton, with his sleepy drawl and sly charm, that makes him almost incapable of overdoing it — a virtue in a role that could easily slide into scenery-chewing or dour wallowing. His Billy is more lovable rapscallion than tortured antihero, closer to Gregory House than Walter White or his ilk.
Arianda took Broadway by storm several years ago in a revival of the 1940s comedy “Born Yesterday,” and she lends “Goliath” a similar kind of screwball energy. As Patty, she’s a husky-voiced, gangly limbed motormouth, the perfect complement to the world-weary, laconic Billy. She’s the pragmatist (“I don’t argue. I paper, I plead and I settle”). He’s the reborn idealist. So far, Amazon has announced only a single season of “Goliath,” but one can easily imagine an ongoing series built around this central duo.
That’s not to say everything in “Goliath” works. Billy and his ragtag team are believably flawed humans, but their rivals at Cooperman & McBride are painted with much broader brushes. Hurt’s Cooperman is a reclusive figure with a mysterious scar across his face who is nearly always found in his office, with the shades drawn, spying on his employees via secret surveillance camera. He’s a comic-book villain in an otherwise grounded universe. This show’s Goliath didn’t have to be quite so giant.
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