Amazon UK TV review: Goliath Season 1 (spoilers)
Ivan Radford | On 20, Nov 2016
Warning: This contains spoilers. Not caught up with Goliath? You can read our spoiler-free review here.
“Donald is one of life’s truly magnificent haters,” says Callie (Molly Parker) of Donald Cooperman in the opening episodes of Amazon’s legal drama, Goliath. It sounds like the kind of catchy, throwaway line you’d hear in a slick modern show, but Goliath more than backs it up with eight episodes of witty dialogue – and gripping hate.
The hatred, of course, is between Donald (William Hurt) and his brother, Billy McBride (Billy Bob Thornton). One’s a corporate tycoon, steeped in corruption, money and eccentric, reclusive tics. The other’s a washed-up alcoholic who used to be a decent lawyer. Or, to put it another way, nobody likes Donald, but everyone loves Billy.
Thornton, who took to the small screen with relish in Fargo, is sensational as McBride. What could be a lazy cliche is fleshed out more by the actor with every episode, as each hour gives him yet another chance to prove that he really is a cracking lawyer. And it’s a treat just to watch him at work. It’s not just that he’s good at his job; its that you can see he enjoys being good at it. And the fact that he manages to keep being good at his job, despite the many hurdles thrown in his way. Heck, it takes him four episodes and every loophole you could think of, just to get to the point where he can actually take his case to court. And even then, it’s only to out-manoeuvre his opponents, after the judge orders him to “put up or shut up”.
“We’re not ready,” hisses small-fry attorney Patty Solis-Papagian (Nina Arianda), whose inexperience continues to be the perfect foil to McBride’s unprofessionalism. “They’re not ready, either!” he reasons.
And so the majority of the season is taken up with the trial and its depositions – exactly what you want from a legal thriller. It’s easy to underrate how well it’s all done, but compare it to the often-unconvincing second season of Broadchurch and Goliath spits with believable chemistry and enjoyably catty exchanges. The chemistry, of course, is not just of the upbeat, sparky kind that Billy shares with prostitute and part-time assistant Brittany Gold (Tania Raymonde), but with William Hurt’s Cooperman. It’s no surprise that the entire season builds up to a showdown between the pair in court, as McBride bamboozles him completely, dismantling Donald’s arrogant composure with a righteous fury.
But the real star of the whole thing, and the biggest of McBride’s obstacles, is Callie – and Molly Parker, who was wonderfully steely in House of Cards, delivers a turn that deserves all the awards as Cooperman’s ruthless, hungry top dog. Having an affair with Billy’s ex-wife, Michelle (Maria Bello), she visibly enjoys screwing them both, and, revealingly, boasts openly about it too. “Seems like a win-win to me,” she snarls, with a wonderfully loathsome smug grin.
She’s more than a one-note character, though, and writers David E. Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro make sure she has a chance to prove it, as she finds herself upstaged by rising star of the company Lucy Kittridge (Olivia Thirlby). Thirlby does well, moving from stuttering newbie to ambitious lover of Donald – him revealing himself naked to her is easily the queasiest TV cliffhanger we’ve seen all year – but she’s better as a foil to Parker’s veteran, who’s not just been in the courtroom more times than her, but probably in Donald’s bed too. Parker becomes more and more childish, as Cooperman backs his new favourite. When we discover that he’s just using Lucy’s backstory of a brother who died in the military to humanise Borns Tech for the jury, that somehow makes it even worse for Callie; her face when she realises Lucy’s rise makes sense, and isn’t just about sex, is priceless.
All of this could easily become over-the-top, but Goliath remains gripping because it grounds everything from the off in a realistic world of consequences: everything that happens has a pay-off down the line, both good and bad. It’s satisfying to see McBride’s perseverance against the system result in progress (Harold Perrineau continues to steal scenes as Judge Keller), but that’s only because the genuinely unexpected hit-and-run early on makes the stakes of their success clear. As their investigations unearth the illegal cluster bomb prototype that Ryan Larson buried in his garden, the brilliantly-named evil henchman Karl Stoltz (Goliath is good at character names) starts to threaten Billy, Brittany and Patty more explicitly. Then, he turns up dead in Billy’s car boot, so Cooperman can set McBride up for his murder.
And so Billy begins to play dirty too, getting Brittany to sleep with a cop, who’s also a key witness, so they can blackmail him, and deposing an FBI agent to give evidence. But those actions have consequences too: Brittany is called, in a final flourish by Callie, as a witness to discredit Billy and his case altogether. That carefully-plotted structure gives the eight-episode season a tight pace that lends itself well to binge-viewing, but also means Goliath gets better as it continues, as it knocks down all the plot pins lined up in the formulaic first half.
But the heart of those logical pay-offs remains the relationship between Billy and his brother, something you can tell from the fact that the series gives us not one, but three showdowns in its second half: firstly, in a Chinese restaurant (where the threat of one doing the other in the ass gives a lurid weight to their reciprocal nastiness); then again, on the witness stand; and finally, in the hospital, after Donald collapses mid-testimony. “I’d kill you right now myself if I could,” he admits. And that animosity, right until Billy walks out the door leaving the defeated Donald behind him, is truly magnificent to watch, elevating Goliath from a well-executed, if familiar, TV drama to a cracking legal thriller that confidently stands among Amazon’s best originals.
Goliath is available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.