Billy Bob Thornton Shines in Amazon's Goliath, an Old Idea with a New Coat of Paint

(Episodes 1.01 and 1.02)

TV Features Goliath
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Billy Bob Thornton Shines in Amazon's <i>Goliath</i>, an Old Idea with a New Coat of Paint

In recent interviews, Goliath co-creator David E. Kelley raved about the storytelling possibilities afforded him by non-commercial streaming services like his new home at Amazon. To Vox critic Todd VanDerWerff, he said, “What we discovered early on, especially with these characters, is that we were afforded the luxury to let scenes breathe. We’ve always been text-driven in the broadcast world, which is good! [...] But to be able now to give the same currency to subtext, that’s been freeing, too.”

There is some small truth to what Kelley is saying. Scenes in the first two episodes of Goliath do breathe. But they too often get dizzy from the lack of oxygen he and his writers are pumping into these scripts. Were it not for a consistent stream of bad language coming from the folks on screen, the series would be almost indistinguishable from a network drama.

Kelley and his cohort Jonathan Shapiro have offered up a too-familiar tale. We have Billy McBride (Billy Bob Thornton), a former hotshot attorney, kicked out of paradise (in this case the firm of Cooperman McBride) for some as-yet-untold misdeed and living out his days shuffling from hotel room to bar. You know, an antihero. Don’t see enough of those on the TV (or in the movies or popular literature) these days, right?

By sheer luck, McBride gets a case thrown into his lap: the death of an employee at an arms manufacturer that was initially ruled a suicide but might be murder! Naturally, he takes the case as an effort both to redeem himself and to stick it to his old employee, as they would be handling the defense. Helping him along the way is a ragtag group, including an ambulance-chasing attorney with an attitude and an erstwhile prostitute.

If you’re wondering where the subtext is in all of this, don’t bother digging. It ain’t there. This is pure surface-level entertainment that pits some scrappy do-gooders with attitude against a big corporate behemoth run by a supervillain-like attorney with a scarred face, all-seeing cameras everywhere, and a weird affectation of using the type of clicking device you would use to train a dog to express his discontent.

Basically what your Amazon Prime subscription is paying for is the chance to see Billy Bob Thornton in action. After his bravura turn as Lorne Malvo in the first season of Fargo, it’s great to see him trading that character’s ice-water veins for something a little warmer and more lived-in with McBride. He reveals the intelligence of this archetypal frumpy loner with ease and encourages us to root for him, even when he’s given dumb things to do like dramatically pouring out a bottle of cheap whiskey to show how strong his resolve is. There’s also a lot of charm in those ragged bones of his. No surprise that he winds up in the sack with his client, the sister of the potentially murdered man (Ever Carradine).

The rest of the cast simply isn’t up to the task. William Hurt, in particular, is a shell of his former glory days. His portrayal of Donald Cooperman goes beyond broad into pure laughable territory. Molly Parker, as the lead counsel for the defense, also lays on every trait as thick as can be. Poor Olivia Thirlby is woefully miscast as the mousy law clerk Cooperman throws into the deep end with this case, for probably salacious reasons. I also want to know who dropped Dwight Yoakam into the mix as a high-powered exec rather than the role he was born to play as one of McBride’s sleazy associates. Only Maria Bello manages to tread water, as Billy’s ex-wife who is still employed by his old firm. It’s not hard to believe that they were once a couple and still have a modicum of respect for each other.

What Kelley also wanted to do with this series is get into the nitty gritty of legal proceedings—the court filings, dismissal hearings, brief draftings and busy work that get skipped over in every episode of Boston Legal. While I’m interested in the eventual outcome of this storyline, it’s all those machinations that have me invested in Goliath. All the detective work and uncovering facts about the cast are all well and good, but watching McBride go toe-to-toe with a judge that might be getting paid to dismiss the case quickly was where my ears perked up. Watching Thornton go up against a great character actor like Harold Perrineau (playing hard-nosed Judge Roston Keller) in those scenes was even better.

I don’t anticipate Goliath to improve greatly in the next six episodes. Sitting through them is likely going to feel like a comfort food-fueled evening enjoying a Law & Order marathon from the comfort of my couch. No new ground is being broken here: Kelley and Shapiro slap a new coat of paint on something instantly recognizable. The only difference is that we now have to pay a premium price to gain admission.

Robert Ham is a regular contributor to Paste and the author of Empire: The Unauthorized Untold Story, out now via Regan Arts. Follow him on Twitter.