For you youngsters out there who never had to walk a mile to school in the snow because your helicopter parents carried you because they didn’t want to get your snow boots wet, around the time you were born, there was an actress named Michelle Pfeiffer who was the Alicia Vikander of her time. She played Catwoman in the version of Batman where that old guy from Spotlight played the title character.
Pfeiffer is awesome. You might have caught her in Stardust, which is also awesome if you can ignore the whole DeNiro playing a gay pirate thing. Pfeiffer is married to a man named David E. Kelley. For those unfamiliar with Kelley, he’s a TV writer of legal shows. However, he’s not one of those legal writers who has no understanding of the law whatsoever, like the guy who writes Suits or whoever it is that turned law school into the The Secret History on How to Get Away with Murder. He’s an actual lawyer. In fact, he and I went to the same law school, and the year I graduated, he spoke at our graduation and he said something along the lines of, “find your own path,” which is how lawyers who don’t practice law tactfully say, “Get the f*ck out. Don’t be a corporate shill, you sell-out.”
Anyway, Kelley can write the hell out of a legal show. Ask your parents about Ally McBeal or L.A. Law or The Practice or Boston Legal. I went to law school because of The Practice, only to find out that practicing law is sadly nothing like The Practice.
Kelley understands the law, but where his real talent resides is in creating quirky, dysfunctional fetishistic characters and then allowing them to take the words of Kelley and turn them into soaring oratories. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Fyvush Finkel or James Spader or John Laroquette or Peter MacNicol or William Shatner or Candice Bergen or even Jane Krakowski deliver a David E. Kelley monologue. Spader’s Kelley monologues, in particular, are practically sexual experiences.
Kelley is also a throwback. He’s a meat and potatoes guy. Give or take a dancing baby, Kelley has no interest in high-concept television. He writes interesting characters, he delivers compelling storylines, and he hires amazing actors to take care of the rest. That’s exactly what the new Amazon series, Goliath is: A throwback. It’s one case, eight episodes, and some brilliant actors inhabiting deftly drawn characters.
Billy Bob Thornton plays Billy McBride, an alcoholic has-been lawyer who rose to the top, built his own law firm, and then spectacularly flamed out. He got booted from his firm. His wife (Maria Bello) divorced him, and he’s living in a motel room and working out of a bar where Goliath picks up.
However, he’s eventually pulled away from a bottle long enough to get involved in the case of a woman (Ever Carradine) who wants to sue a big tech corporation (owned by a Dwight Yoakum character) over her brother’s alleged suicide. She doesn’t think he killed himself, and Billy McBride — after he sleeps with the sister — is inclined to believe her.
What he finds, however, isn’t a run-of-the-mill wrongful death lawsuit. It’s a Grisham-like case against a what turns out to be a potential weapons manufacture represented by Billy’s old firm, now run by his own partner and arch nemesis, Donald Cooperman (William Hurt, at his most dastardly). Cooperman’s firm also employs McBride’s ex-wife, a controlling managing partner (House of Cards’ Molly Parker) and a young associate with a stutter (Olivia Thirbly, and that stutter is a common Kelley tic) who is inexplicably made first chair on the case. It’s a great cast that also includes Lost’s Harold Perrineau as the presiding judge on the case, Alias’ Kevin Weisman, who plays a weapons expert, and Jason Ritter even shows up as an FBI Agent.
Much of the appeal of Goliath is in not what it is, but what it’s not: It’s not a superhero story. There are no sci-fi elements, no androids or rigged elections or White Walkers or political statements. It’s old-fashioned, well-made, well-acted gripping television with bad guys and morally questionable good guys, an intriguing mystery, a dash of conspiracy, Billy Bob Thornton playing a grouchy old alcoholic, Molly Parker The Devil Wears Pradaing out of her young associates, and William Hurt being skeevy as hell. As is often the case with Kelley’s shows, there’s also an assortment of quirky characters, like McBride’s chatterbox business partner (Nina Arianda), the prostitute turned legal assistant (Tania Raymonde), and the wise beyond her years daughter (Diana Hopper). There are some conventional tropes and formulaic storylines here, but Kelley has always been a guy who can make something dazzling out of boilerplate.
Thematically, Kelley also hits a familiar refrain: Is it better to be a good lawyer, or a good person, and can they even be the same thing? Ultimately, however, Goliath is not a hip show. It’s not a cool show. It’s not original or groundbreaking. It’s not Stranger Things or Master of None, but it is wildly entertaining and supremely addictive. It’s also Michelle Pfeiffer’s husband’s best work since Boston Legal.