No one could fault David E. Kelley for investigating the brave new realm of streaming networks, which offers a more enticing array of storytelling options than the more staid broadcast networks that aired most of his hits. Amazon’s “Goliath” is the product of the merging of Kelley’s savvy commercial instincts and the possibilities of the streaming arena, and as hybrids go, this entertaining drama has quite a bit to offer.
“Goliath” is essentially a combination of two stalwart TV forms — the law drama and the antihero serial — but Kelley and star Billy Bob Thornton imbue the proceedings with a great deal of texture, specificity, and energy. If you like an enjoyably combative courtroom scene or testy depositions in which prickly, smart people spar, “Goliath” has a number of moments that recall the most bracing episodes of “The Good Wife.”
At other times, the show displays a distinctly film noir vibe. One scene in the sixth episode reads as an homage to classic Los Angeles noir: Thornton’s character walks through deserted, rain-slicked streets of Chinatown toward a confrontation the show has built toward for much of its eight-episode season. That showdown does not disappoint, and its setting — inside a tired-looking Chinese restaurant — is of a piece with the battered and bruised aesthetic of the rest of the series, which unfolds in an array of seedy but brightly lit apartments and sun-baked parking lots in the Valley and on the scruffy edges of Santa Monica.
Contrast arrives by way of a slick and enormous law firm, where the color scheme is black and white, and appropriately enough, there’s little doubt regarding who the audience should root for. “Goliath” respects the ambiguities and regrets its characters live with, but its sympathies are tilted toward the collection of weirdos and outcasts who gather around William McBride (Thornton), who is down but not yet out.
McBride is a disgraced lawyer who takes on one last big legal battle, and he’s partly motivated by the desire to get revenge on his former firm, which is defending a deep-pocketed defense contractor. Thornton is stellar in the role, and much of “Goliath” might feel more conventional were the actor not doing such detailed and enthralling work. McBride has an unparalleled ability to sweet-talk people into doing his bidding, and he pretends to be laid back, but his pose of calm, drunken cynicism appears to cover up a deep well of shame and seething. Thornton is highly entertaining in a number of legal scenes, but there are almost endless layers to the character. McBride is tender with his sometimes estranged teenager daughter, tart and sarcastic with his super-lawyer ex-wife (Maria Bello), and he goes very still when he’s angry. His glare can be formidable, and McBride knows how to use it.
TV may be Thornton’s most fruitful metier, and, as he was in the first season of “Fargo,” the actor is at the top of his form in this series. He clearly conveys the doubts McBride has about using the full array of despicable tactics he learned while building up his legal career: “Don’t make me stoop to what I’m capable of” he warns one character. One of the best parts of “Goliath” is the way it wrestles with the question of whether McBride’s underhanded and intimidating strategies are truly justifiable. Sometimes they’re clever, but at times he appears to be playing games with people’s lives.
Given the odds against McBride and his rag-tag team, which includes Nina Arianda as a spitfire lawyer who scrounges for clients from above a taco restaurant, risky strategic moves are unavoidable; the team is underfunded and lacks connections. Meanwhile, McBride’s former partner Donald Cooperman (William Hurt), a deeply eccentric power player with a megalomaniacal tendencies, treats his corporate clients like hired hands. He can afford to do so, because the damaging secrets he hoards about these companies and the people who run them give him enormous clout, in the corporate world and beyond.
Cooperman is unable to intimidate the flinty McBride, whose case revolves around the mysterious death of a man who worked for an influential defense contractor, and the low-rent lawyer shows a great deal of ingenuity in battling the slick, smart team he’s up against. It soon becomes clear that Cooperman and his minions will stop at nothing to bury the case, and this only makes McBride angrier and more vicious in his reprisals. Do McBride’s ends justify his means? He drowns himself in alcohol nightly, in part, one assumes, to forestall answering that very question.
Though the first season of “Goliath” is comparatively short and doesn’t often meander, one could quibble about the pacing of the scenes set in the shadowy domain of the somewhat tediously self-absorbed Cooperman. Tonally, some melodramatic scenes involving that controlling character feel a bit too overwrought and don’t quite mesh with the rest of the drama. Both of these very damaged men assemble teams of mostly women to help them fight their titanic legal battle, and it would have been nice had the development of characters played by Bello, Molly Parker and Olivia Thirlby revolved less around the interoffice sniping among them.
That said, those women and the rest of the cast supply an embarrassment of riches. Arianda is a pure delight as McBride’s argumentative but ferociously loyal colleague, Kevin Weisman is terrific as an oddball witness, and Harold Perrineau makes a major impression as an impatient, ambitious judge.
Unlike many streaming dramas, each episode of “Goliath” has a satisfying internal structure, and the series exudes exudes a notable sense of forward movement. This allows the stellar cast to wring evocative moments of intensity, pathos, and sly humor from the solid spine constructed by Kelley and his writers. As McBride, Thornton is capable of seamlessly transitioning from quiet sadness and empathy to petulant rage, and even though he’s at the end of his tether, the man’s tenacity is something to behold.
People keep underestimating him, and watching them make that mistake may be the one pure enjoyment McBride has left.