‘Goliath’: Billy Bob Thornton as a Boozy Lawyer

Ken Tucker

Billy Bob Thornton follows up his great role in the first season of Fargo with a new star vehicle that requires him to breathe life into a far less vital part, in the David E. Kelley drama Goliath. Thornton plays Billy McBride, a washed-up, alcoholic lawyer who goes up against the big Los Angeles firm he helped create. He’s the Goliath in this scenario, and thus the title of the show; the Hercules is the legal system as embodied by William Hurt, made up to look like an obscure Batman villain who was rejected by Gotham.

Goliath is a law show, which is very familiar territory for Kelley, who worked on L.A. Law and created other series in the same genre, including Ally McBeal, The Practice, Boston Public, and Harry’s Law. Remember that last one, starring Kathy Bates as a storefront lawyer practicing her trade in a literal storefront? Well, Goliath has its protagonist also plotting his clients’ defenses in an odd location — a seedy Santa Monica motel, the (real) Ocean Lodge. Billy is so low-rent that he employs a prostitute as his part-time legal aide. He has a regular barstool at a glum (real) bar called Chez Jay.

Get the picture? Billy is a loser — “a moral leper,” someone calls him — but because he’s Thornton and this is a Kelley show, he’s a wily, highly intelligent loser, one who’s going to oppose the big bad corporate law firm and win — or at least, I think he might. Because this is a 10-episode series from Amazon Prime, Kelley may be approaching this as a one-off and yank the show out from under its hero and have him lose.

At any rate, the law firm is, as various characters keep reminding us, one that Billy helped build to its present success. We’re supposed to be intrigued as to why Hurt’s Donald Cooper is so intent on ruining his former partner. Cooper is a ridiculously exaggerated villain, one who sits at his desk in darkness, clicking one of those old-fashioned clickers for no reason — it’s just one of those eccentric tics Kelley likes to give characters. In broad outline, Goliath bears not a few resemblances to Better Call Saul: Down-at-the-heels lawyer goes up against a big firm co-founded by a former ally who now does his work in darkness. To be clear, I’m not accusing Kelley of any thievery; I’m just pointing out a certain staleness in his new product.

Goliath is filled to the brim with good actors and welcome faces, including Maria Bello as Billy’s ex-wife, Molly Parker as a killer-shark attorney (I love Parker’s work in everything she does, but the role Kelley has written for her here is too close to the buttoned-up tough woman she played in House of Cards), and Lost’s Harold Perrineau as an imperious judge.

Have I not described the case Billy is working on? That’s because, in the first two episodes made available for review, it is merely an excuse to give us an extended portrait of Billy McBride and his dissolute life. You can sort of see what Goliath would be like if it were a better show — it shows glimmers of superior law dramas, such as the Paul Newman film The Verdict, and there’s a lot of sunshine-noir in this L.A. production that has faint echoes of the Gene Hackman film Night Moves and Robert Altman’s version of The Long Goodbye. But Goliath, so far, never comes within spitting distance of any of those productions. It’s David E. Kelley doing variations on his earlier shows, with some very good actors trying to make it fresh.

Goliath begins streaming Friday on Amazon Prime.