Amazon’s legal thriller Goliath is decidedly biblical in nature, setting a disgraced, burned-out drunk of a lawyer, Billy McBride (Billy Bob Thornton), against the megalithic firm of his former partner, Donald Cooperman (William Hurt). The former is clearly the David of this story, while the latter is a man who, burned and light-sensitive, is only ever seen in the red glow of his many surveillance feeds like some Lynchian devil. If there’s a parable that creators David E. Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro seem more interested in evoking, however, it’s the story of Job. As McBride puts it to the folks at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, “I just kept redefining what rock bottom was,” and so shit continues to rain down upon him, from a car full of fish guts to a violent traffic stop, creepy stalker, and an outright murder.
This bleak, fast-burning plot feels like it’s taking place worlds away from characters like Brittany (Tania Raymond), a cheery prostitute turned unwilling legal secretary, and Patty Solis-Papagian (Nina Arianda), a glib motormouth who tries to settle cases as if they’re the sunny real estate properties she sells on the side. Even Cooperman McBride’s most predatory lawyers, ruthless Callie (Molly Parker) and all-business Leonard Letts (Damon Gupton), despite being described as “soulless suits,” are depicted as decent people outside of the courtroom, far from capable of the violence that permeates the show (and which is probably being carried out by their weapons-manufacturing client). The heaviness of Goliath’s cheap stunts and shocks likewise never matches the lightness of the dialogue: The show suggests Damages as populated by characters from Kelley and Shapiro’s Boston Legal.
At least McBride himself never seems out of place. In part, that’s because Goliath revolves around the lawyer and gets a lot of mileage from his confusion over some of the more dissonant disasters that befall him. But really, the biggest reason McBride so readily fits in is because of the actor playing him. Thornton is an immensely charismatic actor who’s easy to root for whether he’s playing a cold-blooded killer, as in FX’s Fargo, or a decidedly unfestive thief, as in Bad Santa. Compared to those famous roles, McBride is an immediately more approachable character; the fact that his daughter, Denise (Diana Hopper), prefers him to her mother and his ex-wife (Maria Bello), speaks to his rakish charm (or to his willingness to bend the rules for a teenager). So far as antiheroes go, he’s the sort who thinks nothing of stealing a neighbor’s newspaper or forcing a client to talk, who grimly tries to keep a smile on his face even when he goes toe to toe with an officer.
In truth, the whole cast helps to elevate overly clever dialogue such as “Good blowjobs are easy to find, good legal expertise is hard.” A Tony-winning actress like Arianda doesn’t just weakly snarl the line “I’m not a fuckable person”; her whole body quivers, her eyes crinkling in disgust, at the idea of McBride getting one over on her. Moreover, by setting the bar so low with some of the blunter exchanges, Goliath often manages to surprise with the revelation of a deeper subtext. At one point, McBride delivers a rather hoary speech about his alcoholism, but as it turns out, he’s really just using the whole thing as a pretext to get close to a court clerk from whom he needs to wheedle a favor.
These scenes, in which McBride congenially strong-arms the reluctant, play to Goliath’s biggest strength: unpredictability. He initially approaches Alejandro (Jorge-Luis Pallo) and Gabriel Marquez (Juan Gabriel Pareja), witnesses to his wrongful death case, with a 12-pack of beer and a ready smile, but when the two brothers hesitate, he quickly threatens to bust them for insurance fraud. Once he’s got them on the hook, he’s all sunshine again: “Let’s go be pals and shit,” he says, distributing the drinks. Such behavior also allows the series to catch us off guard. We’re meant to believe that McBride is flippantly goading Judge Roston Keller (Harold Perrineau) into finding him in contempt when really he’s guaranteeing himself a subsequent hearing, one that smartly avoids the immediate dismissal that had been looming before him.
Goliath’s second episode ends with a massive twist that will either make or break the series, an event that threatens to upset the balance of everything presented up to that point. Given Kelley’s track record, this is more likely a healthy move for the show’s development and not just a short-term gambit to keep binge-watchers riveted, but the way in which it’s handled is so abrupt that it only reinforces the writing’s inconsistency. As Rachel (Ever Carradine), McBride’s client and lover puts it, “Did we lose or did we win?” And in a response that perfectly summarizes Goliath’s devil-may-care attitude, McBride, with a twinkle in his eye, tells her “Both, kinda.”