Let us now praise emptily entertaining TV: The schlocky, the tawdry, the Charo-enhanced. Self-contained, unpretentious, and made to air in perpetual repeats. The sort of programming that could be introduced with an enticing but ludicrous highlight reel, where Rick Simon forklifts his way out of a burning building or a camera swoops in on Jonathan Hart, Jennifer Hart, and Max wrapping up some sort of song-and-dance number. The works of your Quinn Martins, your Aaron Spellings, your Glen A. Larsons.
Now, Goliath is not completely that type of show. The names behind it—David E. Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro—aren’t those types creators. For years, Kelley’s imprimatur was as close to a televised seal of excellence as you could get. He was the breakout star of the L.A. Law writers’ room, which he joined after a stint practicing law himself in Boston. Kelley has returned to that subject matter (and occasionally that setting) throughout his career, though the audiences that once flocked to Ally McBeal and Boston Legal had grown too old for advertisers’ tastes by the time Harry’s Law rolled around. Which is how Goliath and its co-creator can be mentioned in the same breath as the Simons, the Harts, Spelling, and Larson: It’s streaming on Amazon, and it’s never met a “fuck” it wouldn’t like to shoehorn into a line of dialogue, but Goliath feels like a show from a different era.
The guy who helped bridge the TV innovations of four other Davids (from Lynch and Milch to Chase and Simon—and Milch again) is making prestige TV for a world that only persists in an out-of-date IMDB biography. For all the buttons it pushes, formats it breaks, and artful dissolves it deploys, the story of Billy Bob Thornton as a fallen legal star battling his old firm is bizarrely beholden to traditional TV practices. Artless establishing shots of a SoCal setting that wouldn’t look out of place in a CBS procedural are used as segues between scenes. The first season’s inciting incident—an explosion at sea—is depicted like the cold open for a mystery that’s more typically solved in 44 minutes. The antagonistic law firm, the metaphorical behemoth of the show’s title, is introduced during a company-wide seminar that does as much expositional hand-holding as the scene will allow.
And yet, something funny happens to Goliath as its first two episodes play out. You can probably pinpoint it to William Hurt’s first onscreen appearance as Donald Cooperman, the facially scarred partner at the evil firm of Cooperman-McBride, who bathes his office in red light and silences his subordinates with the maddening sound of a handheld clicker. Hurt is making an entirely different show from his co-workers, but his luxuriating in the supervillainy of the role—Cooperman is essentially Chuck McGill from Better Call Saul reinvented as Lex Luthor—lifts Goliath up from the morass of hollow profanity and protracted sex scenes. Eventually, enough of these go-for-broke flourishes pile up to make a show that falls short of “entertaining,” but entertains nonetheless.
There’s Molly Parker as Callie Senate, relishing every chance to grind some meek associate under her heel. There’s the interiors of Cooperman-McBride, a collage of styles that scream “very expensive” yet comes out looking more like a dictator’s residence in a dystopian film and less like the offices of any law firm on this planet. There’s the theme sequence, which drops Thornton’s Billy McBride into a metaphor-mixing underwater purgatory with an ironic, SpongeBob SquarePants-esque treatment of the physical limitations of life underwater.
They might amuse, but these introductory chapters of Goliath aren’t good TV. McBride’s a hackneyed antihero whose standard-issue baggage even the reliably enjoyable Thornton can’t enliven, and the basics of its case are the type that a lither legal show would metabolize in a single episode—if it weren’t first larded with conspiratorial implications and at least four too many characters. By wedding beach noir to the court rooms and offices Kelley and Shapiro are more comfortable in, Goliath fails to strike a consistent tone. That problem is only exacerbated when characters like high-strung attorney/part-time real-estate agent Patty Solis-Papagian (Nina Arianda) wander in as if years late for an episode of one of Kelley’s quirkier, Boston-set shows.
Goliath has dreadful aim, but at least it points its javelin at ambitious targets: It clearly wants to speak truth to power, even when the words come out like “I drink just the right amount.” Episode two climaxes with some sparkling courtroom action, and you can really sense Kelley getting back into his element. But what surrounds that sequence too frequently confuses severity for sophistication, or cynicism about the legal system for skeptical critique. That is when it’s not being outright sleazy, as it usually is when Tania Raymonde (playing Brittany, a prostitute doing clerical favors for Billy) is onscreen. At least there’s the suggestion that characters like Brittany, or put-upon associate Lucy (Olivia Thirlby) have hidden depths that will be explored as deeply as Billy’s, connecting them all into a continuum of well-intentioned people marginalized by the morally bankrupt likes of Callie or Cooperman.
But if Goliath feels crowded after two hours, how’s it going to feel if it does take that dive? Whatever there is to enjoy about the show, it’s all surface level, and that surface is too choppy to be routinely entertaining. But every once in a while a big, unpredictable wave swells up out of nowhere, providing the sort of cheap thrill or eye-rolling laugh that, in a different age, would be folded into Goliath’s theme sequence.