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David E. Kelley, creator of The Practice and Ally McBeal, is back with his best show in 20 years

He tells us about making the move to Amazon with Goliath and why jury trials are so vital.

Billy Bob Thornton stars in Goliath.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In the 1990s, one name was synonymous with quality television: David E. Kelley. The list of shows he either created or wrote for reads like a list of nearly every Emmy-winning series of the period (largely because so many of them did win): Picket Fences, L.A. Law, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Ally McBeal. He even co-created Doogie Howser, M.D.

But throughout the 2000s, Kelley’s influence steadily waned. Yes, his law drama Boston Legal won a handful of trophies for its actors, but it wasn’t the powerhouse that some of his earlier shows had been, either in the ratings or with awards bodies.

And in the latter half of the decade, he struggled to keep a show on TV. Even the relatively well-viewed Harry’s Law only made it two seasons on NBC, due to its lack of younger viewers.

But instead of closing up shop, Kelley has set sail for the bright shores of streaming television and come up with Goliath, his best new TV show in almost two decades (since The Practice launched in 1997).

With a tremendous cast including Billy Bob Thornton, William Hurt, Maria Bello, Molly Parker, and many, many other recognizable names and faces, each season of Goliath traces one case as it wends its way through the court system. In the process, hero Billy McBride (Thornton) — a washed-up drunk who used to be one of the best lawyers in the country — tries desperately to take on the massive power of corporate law and simply have his day in court.

Goliath has its issues (which I’ll discuss in more detail when I review the series on Sunday) but for the most part, it represents Kelley at his best: The series is a rousing look at contemporary issues, performed by great actors, with smart dialogue and characters. To get a sense of just how it came to be, I talked to Kelley and his Goliath co-creator Jonathan Shapiro, who is, like Kelley, a former attorney himself.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Todd VanDerWerff

The alcoholic lawyer who still cares is a character that fiction returns to again and again. What makes that such an enduring type?

Jonathan Shapiro

It’s not just a cliché. The American Bar Association and the Betty Ford Clinic put out a study this year that lawyers have three times the level of substance abuse as other professions, and I think twice as much mental health issues. The fundamental question is what happens to a person if they spend their whole lives fighting? It leaves scars. One reason it’s a sort of an evergreen character is because it’s true.

David E. Kelley

Premiere Of Amazon's 'Goliath' - After-Party
David E. Kelley, left, and Jonathan Shapiro attend the after party for the premiere of Goliath.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

One of the things that contributes to that moral and physical breakdown that so many lawyers suffer is a lot of people go into the world of law because it’s a noble calling. There is a nobility within them, and they think that this profession speaks to that nobility. When it doesn’t turn out to be true, it has a crushing effect on the character. It can wreak havoc with both their psyche and their emotional constitution.

This particular character [at the center of Goliath] is very broken down, and very damaged, and not even altogether likable. But that core of humanity, and being mindful of that nobility that first brought him into that [legal] world, it’s still there! Beaten and damaged for sure, but it’s still there. The fact that these guys are still willing to tilt at windmills, and believe in justice and righteousness, that makes them redeemable.

Billy McBride is not, on paper, a likable guy. The trick is to somehow cheer for him, and like him, even though his behavior is often appalling. I think where we succeed, and it’s a testament to Billy Bob’s acting, is that core of humanity comes through, even though he’s often acting in very despicable ways.

This is a guy who, when he endeavored to become a lawyer, really felt that he was going to confront situations and leave them better off than he found them. That was going to be his role as a lawyer, and that’s not dead yet. It’s been kicked, and beaten, and thrown to the curb, but it’s not dead. This case [in season one] kind of awakens in him that opportunity to leave the situation better off than he found it.

I grew up loving Don Quixote. There’s a version of that character in many, many lawyers, and there is one in this guy.

Todd VanDerWerff

The show is called Goliath because it’s about one guy going up against huge forces in the corporate and legal worlds. Do you think there’s still room in the legal system for the individual?

David E. Kelley

Yes, but less of it. You know the statistics better than I do, Jonathan.

Jonathan Shapiro

When we started off [in our earlier legal careers], lawyers wanted to be Atticus Finch, and when I was at Kirkland and Ellis three years ago, every single summer associate was joining corporate. They all want to be in-house at Apple. They all have science backgrounds, not liberal arts backgrounds, and they’re all interested in stock options.

The law that we entered into, which was that tradition of Abe Lincoln telling a story to 12 jurors, now we’ve gotten to the point where there are 20 law firms in the United States right now with revenues of over $1 billion!

Meanwhile, the number of jury trials in our country has gone down 50 to 60 percent in the major metropolitan areas — 50 to 60 percent fewer opportunities for the little guy to ever get in front of a jury!

The New York Times had a great series of articles this year about how we’ve all signed away our rights to go to jury trials [by accepting terms of service agreements for apps, websites, and more]. We’ve all agreed to arbitration. Less than 1 percent of all federal cases ever get to a jury.

That’s bad! I’m just willing to say, that’s bad! You know who thought that was bad? James Madison. Madison, in "The Federalist Papers," said the most important check on the power of government is the jury trial. [Alexis] De Tocqueville came over here [to America] and said, "The lawyer class and the jury trial are the most important ways to prevent democracy from being taken over by economic interests."

It’s all happened in the last 30 years. The first time we ever talked about this show, that’s what we wanted to talk about. We’re passionate about it, because we love the law.

David E. Kelley

The beauty is, if you can get there, the truth still does have a chance. That jury still is the great equalizer. It’s the level playing field. The problem is, you can’t get on the field. Just to get inside that coliseum, onto that field, takes too much money.

That’s what Billy McBride is faced with. The hook of the series, as we go forward, is [the question of whether] he can claw his way into that arena. [If he can,] then truth still has a chance, but that’s a formidable crawl.

Amazon Red Carpet Premiere Screening Of Original Drama Series 'Goliath' At The London West Hollywood
Billy Bob Thornton (second from left) and Maria Bello pose with Amazon Head of Drama Series Morgan Wandell (left) and David E. Kelley.
Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Amazon Studios

Todd VanDerWerff

Say I’m a political activist. Do you still think my best chance to effect change is through a jury trial?

Jonathan Shapiro

Thurgood Marshall thought so. Thurgood Marshall thought the only way that you are ever going to change the racial bias in this country was by getting in front of a jury.

Proposition Eight, which banned gay marriage [in California], was only overturned because they got in front of a courtroom. In our beloved State of California, when the Supreme Court said you can no longer discriminate based on race in housing, what did we do? We passed Proposition 14 that said, in California, you have a constitutional right to not rent to black people. They had to go back into court to fix that.

Every great movement in this country has been won in front of a jury. As a citizen, we were interested in just the drama of what it takes nowadays to get there. But I agree with David; if you can get there, and you’re as good a lawyer as Billy McBride, well, maybe you can have a shot!

Todd VanDerWerff

You’ve both done a lot of stuff for the traditional broadcast and cable networks. What’s been most exciting about a model where you know people are going to watch three or four episodes in a row? How have you shifted your writing style, now that you’re writing for the season, instead of the episode?

David E. Kelley

The biggest change is lifting the constraints of broadcast television. You get into the habit of writing eight-minute acts after a while. You build your structure, so you have to have these little built-in cliffhangers to bring people back after the commercial break. You only have 41 minutes to tell your story, so you’re working at a faster clip.

Here, what we discovered early on, especially with these characters, is that we were afforded the luxury to let scenes breathe. We’ve always been text-driven in the broadcast world, which is good! We’ve had fun in the broadcast world. But to be able now to give the same currency to subtext, that’s been freeing, too.

It’s been a real collaboration between writers and actors, that when you have to make 22 episodes a year, you’re going at a pace just to get it done. We really enjoyed the time and the patience and the resources to be more specific with these individual hours.

Todd VanDerWerff

You have a gift for creating characters who are instantly recognizable. Certainly if they’re played by Billy Bob Thornton or William Hurt, that helps, but what are your key methods to coming up with a character who clicks immediately?

David E. Kelley

It’s like the Supreme Court’s version of obscenity: "I’ll know it when I see it."

When you start writing a pilot, you’re trying to move plot and develop character at the same time. It’s easy to get lost as you pursue plot. You may have the characters in your head, but it’s easy to get lost and not realize that you’ve fallen short on the manifestation of who these people are. You’re tweaking and going back and forth.

I always start with people that are dimensional, that have flaws, that more times than not have a core of goodness, just because I’m a sentimentalist that way. If they’re not complicated, and they aren’t flawed, and they don’t have the frailties and fragilities that go along with their strengths, I typically don’t find them interesting.

Lawyers by trade usually are fraught with a lot of complexity, but every character is a blank page. There’s certainly no science to it. Not every character that we write works, and not every character that you write necessarily morphs well with the actor that you’ve cast to inhabit that role.

Then you have the flexibility of looking at the actor, looking at the strengths they bring, looking at the original conception of the character, seeing maybe where they meet, and it turns into an amalgamation. It’s not just us the writers, but it’s the actors’ creation as well.

Jonathan Shapiro

We both hope that by the end, you will have questioned whether Billy is the hero or Cooperman [William Hurt] is the hero.

David E. Kelley

One starts out very human, and becomes a little more monstrous, and one starts off coming off as a monster, and as we peel back the layers, is revealed to be maybe more human than first thought. With these two actors, they were able to play on those different levels.

2005 Summer ABC Television Critics Press Tour - Day 15
In 2005, David E. Kelley (center) discusses Boston Legal with James Spader (left) and William Shatner, who played Alan Shore and Denny Crane.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Todd VanDerWerff

David, on shows like Picket Fences and Boston Legal, you were really known for writing scripts that tackled issues of the day in the US. Not that Goliath doesn’t do that, but it’s easier for broadcast TV to manage that kind of quick turnaround. Do you miss having that soapbox in a year filled with as much fascinating news as 2016 has had?

David E. Kelley

I miss it a lot! Every time I watch the news now, I would love to have a show that gets to throw in our two cents.

On the other hand, with the proliferation of news shows and other faux news shows blending political commentary, there’s great voice to all these issues. If we did an issue-driven show today, it might be less original, because there are a lot of issue-driven productions out there. So many of the stories that we used to do didn’t make the news, but now, with the proliferation of so many news outlets, it’s hard to get ahead of them.

But the short answer to your question is "yes!" I wish I had Alan Shore and Denny Crane on the balcony discussing this presidential election.

Goliath debuts on Amazon Prime on Friday, October 14.

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