Already seen Goliath? Read our spoiler-filled review of the whole first season here.
Who doesn’t love a good legal drama? That’s presumably the thinking behind Amazon’s latest original series, Goliath, which was ordered straight to series from Ally McBeal and Boston Legal creator David E. Kelley.
Kelley, a veteran of the network TV world, has spoken about the pleasures of working with Amazon, where there are fewer constraints, but Goliath remains resolutely trapped within its genre conventions – the only thing to suggest Kelley’s making the most of his creative freedom is that the characters swear.
Sure enough, within the show’s opening few episodes, everything is laid out as expected: there’s the suspicious death of an average, blue collar worker (who works for a military defence contractor), the gigantic corporation trying to cover it up and the plucky young innocent keen to out the truth. Who she gonna call? Why, Billy McBride, of course, the once-great lawyer who has since descended into an alcoholic, anti-social disgrace to the profession. Can the underdog take on the system and win? The title is name-checked within the first three instalments, making it clear that we’re not in subtle territory.
That has, to weigh the proverbial evidence, its pros and cons. On the downside, that leads to a shamelessly over-the-top performance from William Hurt in the villainous role of Donald Cooperman, McBride’s former partner. He spends his time sitting in a darkened room, making clicking noises and bathed in red light. He even listens to opera, just so we know he’s evil. He’s prone to watching everything that Billy does through red-tinted hidden cameras, a habit that borders on cartoonish and could almost derail the whole thing.
“Donald is one of life’s truly magnificent haters,” observes Cooperman’s employee, Callie (House of Cards’ Molly Parker, in superbly frosty mode). She spends most of her time barking threats at those trying to expose their conspiracy or bullying nervous newbie Lucy (Olivia Thirlby). While you hope both will get more to do in later episodes, their more traditional roles balance out Hurt’s megalomaniac.
If Donald strays into daft territory, though, that determination to prove how far he’ll go to punish Billy gives events a genuine feel of peril – under his ever-watchful gaze, we’re presented with a world where police can pull you over for no reason, judges can be bribed (watch out for Constantine’s increasingly impressive Harold Perrineau) and evidence can disappear. Soon enough, you start holding your breath every time people cross the road.
In the good corner, Nina Arianda builds up some effective sympathy for her upcoming lawyer, willing to put in the elbow grease to get ahead. Maria Bello as McBride’s ex-wife, now working for Cooperman, ensures that not everything is as black and white as the show’s enjoyably noir-tinged lighting (all seedy interiors and bright exteriors) would have you believe.
But the star of the show is undoubtedly Billy Bob Thornton. Like Matthew McConaughey in True Detective, he’s an actor who’s unafraid to fill up every inch of the small screen – after his superb work in Fargo, he’s on equally brilliant form here, managing to play up his antihero credentials (“You drink too much.” I drink exactly the right amount.”) but without descending into cliche.
Through the surface of grizzled stubble and weary, hangdog humour, Thornton gives us just enough of a glimpse of how good McBride is at his job. He’s horribly rude and uncaringly blunt, yet he’s still able to talk people into doing anything. He’s barely conscious most days, yet he can run rings around opponents in court, jumping from one loophole to the next just to give his team the chance to be heard. More sensitive moments with his teenage daughter, and the person who first brought them the case, meanwhile, suggest that he’s not only capable of sympathy and rage, but also well aware that he’s a more than capable lawyer who’s far from achieving his potential – no wonder he drinks so much.
That potential, of course, is not just for doing the right thing: he’s equally willing to sink to low depths if necessary, which makes his games with his enemies both entertaining and morally dubious.
If all that sounds tired, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt here. The reason, bizarrely, is because the show (probably unintentionally) subverts the usual rules: in a sea of thrillers where page-turner plots push audiences through a narrative with a bland, obvious protagonist, Goliath has a largely forgettable plot that gives us a chance to spend more time with an excellent portrayed protagonist. The result is hardly revolutionary, but it’s very compelling TV, particularly if you’re a fan of catty courtroom exchanges. And that’s precisely what Amazon is banking on. Everyone love a good legal drama – and Goliath is certainly one of those.
Goliath is available from Friday 14th October on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.