By Alison Lanier | TV | January 27, 2023 |
By Alison Lanier | TV | January 27, 2023 |
The premise of Paul T. Goldman sounds simple: a good-hearted but very gullible older man writes a book about his experience married to a con woman, then stars in a show adapting the story. Well, really the show is about the casting, filming, and production of the adaptation so it’s … yeah, meta. And not so simple. Long story short: Paul, an open, cheery guy from Rhode Island, is getting on in years and yearns for a family. So he takes the next logical step and … purchases a bride from recently-Soviet Russia. Yeah, not an endearing opening. But believe me when I say Paul is not your usual character. He’s so earnest, so painfully childlike, that you can instantly understand why he might become the target of a con artist. Why he goes through the world without seeing the evils with which he engages and enables. And why he has to see himself as the hero.
While his marriage to his Russian wife doesn’t work out long-term (because she devoted herself to her medical career and got her doctorate, while the exes remain cordial), Paul’s real-life ex-wife and son come to set to help run lines and cast the actors playing them. So there appears to be a minimum of bad feelings there. But appearances are what this show is all about tearing apart.
Paul meets a woman, “Audrey,” via a dating site after his first divorce. She’s too good to be true—because she is, and turns out she’s out to get his assets, and that she’s been married before, and did exactly the same thing in her previous marriages. Paul’s divorce lawyer takes the normal steps of subpoenaing Audrey’s phone and financial records, which—combined with going through her boyfriend’s trash—lead Paul down a wild investigative rabbit hole implicating Audrey in a massive international child sex trafficking ring run by the mob.
Phew. You get all that? Good, because it only gets weirder.
Paul can’t prove any of this in a court of law. No one sees the evidence the way he does (except for his go-to psychic adviser). So Paul writes the story from his perspective in a self-published novel called Duplicity. Then, because he is still living in this story despite the years ticking on, he adapts the novel into a screenplay, adding more and more fiction. Then he writes spinoff novels in which the character “Paul” becomes a spy and goes around the world trying to take down this dangerous group of human traffickers, all spearheaded by the evil pimp/boyfriend in whose trash real-life Paul believes he found the incriminating evidence.
It doesn’t stop there. Paul tweets incessantly, about the people he believes are guilty, about his growing “franchise,” and at/about directors he wants to direct his screenplay. This is where he finds Jason Woliner, who takes on the project after being tweeted at in 2012.
The deliriously meta project brings the story’s painful contradictions to the surface. It comes as no great surprise to learn that Paul T. Goldman isn’t actually Paul’s real name—it’s the name of the character he created for himself, the “real life” pseudonym who could also go off on James-Bond-style adventures after the based-on-real-life stuff has run its course. Sequels! Spinoff! Franchise! This story has become Paul’s whole life. He can’t see out or past or around it. And as the show does its due diligence, it becomes increasingly clear that the story’s dark true-crime core, the mission to which Paul’s dedicated himself, never existed anywhere outside Paul’s head.
One of the actors asks the necessary question to the camera: is the director exploiting this guy or giving him a chance to live out the adventure story in the way he’s been yearning for? Jason apparently believed the story going in … but as the decade-long project of creating and selling the show rolled on, the implication is that Jason slowly begins to realize that he’s looking to an incredibly unreliable narrator for this “true crime” escapade. So the show becomes about how cheery, open-hearted Paul came to live—with all good intentions and absolute conviction—in a fantasy world.
But there’s a darkness to Paul too, in the way there’s a ruthless kind of viciousness to a child who doesn’t expect anything he says to be taken seriously. When the team is filming a fictionalized scene from Paul’s novel, in which Audrey and her boyfriend/pimp are making their getaway to the Bahamas and their boat explodes (because the mafia, I guess), Paul makes an off-handed comment about “dreams coming true” as the characters perish in a fiery blast. Jason looks around at him with open fear on his face. This isn’t the only time that looks of terror happens. And it is increasingly uncomfortable as Paul makes it clear that Jason is now part of the Paul T. Goodman narrative now too—a “brother” in the mission whom Paul messages continually over the course of the ten years this project took to bring to completion.
Paul can’t stop creating this world: he creates a spin-off after-school-special series designed to star his son, a dystopian future series that preserves the small and fictionalized family unit (which includes the model-esque Russian bride who recoiled from him at first meeting), and even an animated children’s show starring dog detectives in which Paul does all the voices. All the writing is simple, clunky, and strained—again, a childish, disconnected portrayal of a broader world encountered mostly through Hollywood and cable TV. And all of it puts the character Paul in the heart of an unbreakable family unit, always there for each other, always on the side of good … while Paul himself is living alone in Florida, his bedroom piled with the stuffed animals he tried to buy his teenaged son.
He clearly doesn’t connect his action-hero campaign against sex trafficking with the fact that his first marriage was arranged via sex trafficking. There are euphemisms thrown around about Paul. He fixates on things. He trusts people completely. And no one wants to even try to burst the powerfully positive, chaotic bubble that is his personality.
In the end, the title of the show—which at first feels random and awkward—becomes a disquieting battleground. “Goldman” is a character who became a life-defining alter-ego for Paul. And Goldman’s story became more real to Paul than the reality he lives in. As Jason does the careful, slow work of trying to break through Paul’s delusion, confronting him with information and explanations that simply can’t be reconciled, Paul seems actively unable to step back from the fiction. I can’t help but think about how much healthier Paul’s life might have been if he’d found LARPing instead of true crime—LARPing being a community that obsessively discusses the division between self and character, story and bleed. True crime thrives by smudging those boundaries.
Paul is, in the end, a figure of humor, empathy, pity, and optimism. It’s as easy to pity him as it is to scoff at him. But while the show does at time skirt the line of mocking Paul, Jason takes pains to make Paul’s world real to us, so that when it shatters and the depth of the fantasy comes to light, you feel that loss too.
It would be a much less morally gray story if Paul had been violent or malicious in the course of his campaign—though to be fair he did try to out innocent people as sex traffickers on Twitter in the site’s early days. But 99% of Paul’s vengeance happened in the form of self-published novels, in screenplays, in daydreams—a version where fiction put him in control and in the right. It’s true crime falling into its most essential, escapist, voyeuristic, and heavily narrativized trap: this is just the story someone wanted to be true—a more spectacular and clean version of a messy reality in which the hero doesn’t get to stay the hero.