A TV Legend’s Unremarkable Return

4 minute read

Through its pilot program, Amazon Studios lets viewers vote on the first episodes of new shows and takes the results into account when deciding which shows to greenlight for a full season. This user feedback helped bring us hits like Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle as well as a fair share of misfires. But Goliath, a new legal drama set to arrive on the streaming service on Oct. 14, bypassed that program entirely. Although it stars Billy Bob Thornton and Maria Bello, the name that earned it a series order is behind the camera.

Goliath is the latest series from David E. Kelley, the writer and creator of such hits as Picket Fences, The Practice and Ally McBeal. Kelley says he has been so pleased with his Amazon experience that he is done with broadcast TV. But the show he created with the streaming service feels too much like the world he now wants to leave behind. In fact, Goliath is exactly the sort of show that might have benefited from the pilot-program process and the testing and retooling that come with it.

Thornton plays Billy McBride, a Los Angeles attorney and the latest in TV’s long list of geniuses whose skill sets don’t fit into traditional frameworks–call him House, J.D. Once a top litigator, Billy has now found himself taking two-bit cases and searching for a way back to the big time. His ex-wife Michelle (Bello), a corporate lawyer, marvels at how far he’s fallen: “This was one of the best trial lawyers ever!”

Eventually we do see his mind at work, but only after plot developments as subtle as Bello’s dialogue. Billy is handed a valuable referral to a potential client, the sister of an unlucky fellow whose death in a boat explosion may be tied to his work for a military contractor. The case could revive his career, but Billy can’t help himself and instead gets drunk, sleeps with the plaintiff and later misses her hearing. Here we go again: yet another small-screen antihero, speeding to rock bottom until a plot twist forces him to shape up.

The tropes are as familiar as yesterday’s news—-or today’s TV. The whole show feels like a mixtape of borrowed ideas. William Hurt’s reclusive legal mastermind–who, in keeping with this show’s tiny universe, employs Michelle and despises Billy–has DNA from Damages and Better Call Saul. Molly Parker’s vicious, hypercompetent attorney feels imported from House of Cards, on which Parker also appears.

The only thing on Goliath that doesn’t feel imported from the past decade of prestige drama is Kelley’s sensibility, which overlays the series uncomfortably. Many of his hits merged up-to-the-minute social concerns with characters gaudily unconcerned with propriety. They spit out their lines as if they were too hot to hold in the mouth. And too often the characters seemed more like clever distractions than integral parts of a plot. In Goliath, Nina Arianda’s role as Patty Solis-Papagian, the lawyer who brings the wrongful-death case to Billy’s attention, gets the dubious honor. She’s brash, idealistic and prone to dropping F bombs when they’re not particularly necessary. Take the profanity away and she’d fit in at Ally McBeal’s firm, blazing across the screen in a fit of quirky, overstuffed dialogue.

For all of Kelley’s success, his shows have not aged well. Picket Fences, The Practice and Ally McBeal all won Best Series Emmys and yet now are remembered more as cultural moments than enduring programs. Pushing the envelope with odd characters and daring story lines, as Kelley has done masterfully for decades, guarantees attention–but there’ll always be someone more daring coming up behind you.

And that’s what has happened. In the streaming era, TV has moved so quickly toward normalizing the once controversial that Kelley’s tricks no longer work. On some level, Goliath seems to understand this: with the show, one of TV’s most famous impresarios seems as if he’s content to chase trends, not start them.

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