clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Goliath, Amazon’s new legal drama, shows what streaming TV can learn from '90s TV

The new Billy Bob Thornton vehicle solves streaming’s biggest storytelling problem with old-fashioned knowhow.

William Hurt stars as Donald Cooperman 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.

The term that best describes Goliath, Amazon’s new legal drama from creators David E. Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro, is "old-fashioned."



Some might think of this as a pejorative, and in some cases, it would be. But in this case, Goliath’s commitment to the way TV used to be made, with just enough allowance for how shows are made now, has offered up a best-of-both-worlds scenario.

The series has the solid, old-school construction of Kelley’s best shows (which include Picket Fences and The Practice), but it’s also got the "need to watch one more" qualities that can make streaming TV so addictive.

I wouldn’t call the show perfect. Kelley and Shapiro are a little too in love with their quirks to create a show that doesn’t occasionally tip over into unearned melodrama and/or Gothic horror, and the series’ understanding of lesbian relationships, in particular, is straight out of 1992. But at its core, where it counts, Goliath does more good than bad.

In particular, it’s a great suggestion of what streaming television could learn from the way TV was made just a few years before The Sopranos debuted in 1999 and kicked off the current era of TV drama. As always, spoilers follow.

Every episode of Goliath is an episode. And thank goodness for that!

Maria Bello stars as Michelle, a partner in Cooperman’s law firm and Billy’s ex-wife.

Over its eight episodes, Goliath tells the story of one case from the moment it falls into the lap of washed-up lawyer Billy McBride (Billy Bob Thornton), up through the ultimate court battle between Billy and the gigantic law firm he co-founded. So far, that sounds like any other number of streaming shows that tell one big story over eight to 13 hours.

But Goliath understands something about TV construction that many of those shows don’t. As a great many TV critics have lamented (including me), the idea of the episode as a discrete unit of storytelling is increasingly flying out the window as the streaming model takes hold. As we move toward a world where the main unit of TV storytelling is "the season" instead of "the episode," it’s also led to a bunch of sloppy decisions on the part of series that don’t really have enough story to fill four hours, let alone 13.

Goliath, however, takes its cues from shows like Breaking Bad or 24. Shows where, yes, everything was heavily serialized, but each and every episode was a smaller part of a greater whole. Think, for instance, of how many episodes of Breaking Bad focused on one tiny problem Walter and Jesse had to solve to keep building their meth empire. That tiny problem became the focus for each hour, and it drove the action forward, hooking us into each and every step of the larger narrative.

Goliath does something similar. In each episode, there’s some small task that has to be completed on the way to trial. Billy has to prepare a witness for a deposition in one episode, and in another, he has to figure out a way to get the judge to put the trial in front of a jury (where he has a better chance at success). All the while, the serialized character drama that makes streaming TV so addictive is going on, but it’s happening around these stronger, more centralized plots.

This isn’t, in any way, revolutionary. It’s just an extension of how Kelley used to tell stories in the ’90s. But instead of having genuine cases of the week, he has pieces of the week — as though the whole season were one big puzzle, and you’re watching him snap in each tiny piece with satisfaction.

The ultimate irony of this is that, unlike most other streaming dramas, Goliath feels like it doesn’t get enough time to tell its story. I would have loved to have seen more detail on how Billy ultimately selects the jury, or on the trial itself, where some witnesses are glossed over. There are emotional beats in the series that felt rushed past, and some of the character moments don’t entirely land in the end.

By focusing on the episode over the season, Goliath makes itself that much more binge-able, even if it becomes that much more apparent where it simply skips over seemingly vital parts of its story.

Some of Kelley’s tics are in place, but they aren’t as distracting in a streaming format

Billy’s foes head into court.

One of the reasons Kelley slowly fell out of favor with TV critics (including myself) was that his characters often felt less like organic human beings and more like collections of tics that didn’t really add up to anything, other than an attempt to provoke buzz at the water cooler. (The nadir of this might have been Kathy Bates’s gun-toting lawyer on his NBC series Harry’s Law.)

There’s a little of this on display in Goliath — particularly when it comes to William Hurt’s Donald Cooperman, Billy’s former partner who now spends most of his time in a darkened room, nursing his half-burnt face and clicking maddeningly on a signaling device.

Cooperman is the story’s villain, and Kelley and Shapiro are not shy about letting you know. He sleeps with a 26-year-old, seemingly in exchange for her career advancement. He snarls and calls people names. He despises others for being "weak," particularly Billy, whose drinking problem apparently exacerbated the growing rift between the two.

But where one of Kelley’s ’90s dramas would have just kept piling the quirks on this character, streaming TV all but demands some sort of resolution. And in the season’s final two hours, Cooperman gets more dimensions and shadings, as we learn just what drives him and get a poignant back-story for his clicking device.

Similar problems surround Molly Parker’s Callie Senate, Billy’s arch-rival in the courtroom, who also turns out to be dating his ex-wife, Michelle (Maria Bello). This is all handled slightly better than it would have been on, say, L.A. Law (the drama where Kelley cut his teeth), but that show aired in the late ’80s, so that’s not really saying a lot. Callie turns out to be vaguely predatory of Michelle, in a way that plays into bad stereotypes about lesbian relationships.

But, again, pushing everything to a catharsis in the last couple of episodes semi-redeems even this bizarre storytelling misstep, as Callie becomes more than "the woman who does extreme things for narrative convenience’s sake."

I don’t want to claim these character arcs are somehow a huge step up. Goliath still trades a little too neatly in the "This piece of back-story is why this character is the way they are," which is not how human psychologies work, most of the time.

But the way the streaming format forces stories toward a climactic point means that Kelley and Shapiro have to make more sense of their characters than they would have on a show with more standalone episodes. There, Cooperman could have just been the height of outrageousness, clicking away and doing villainous things to make people buzz about his wickedness. Or Callie could have become even more of a predator, doing crazier and crazier things to get Michelle’s attention.

But that’s because most standalone shows with serialized elements are so open-ended that they need to keep pushing things to more outrageous places — for a good, current example of this, look no further than Empire. On a streaming show, the suggestion of closure requires the suggestion of catharsis, and it turns out to be just what Kelley and Shapiro need to smooth out some of Goliath’s rougher elements.

Most of Kelley’s old strengths are still in place

Nina Arianda is one of the less known members of the cast — and one of the best.

Even at his worst, Kelley could attract strong actors. He gave them big monologues that let them inveigh against the inherent injustice of the universe — or, if nothing else, he let them play big, bizarre, and goofy moments. His actors have won Emmy after Emmy after Emmy, sometimes for shows that just weren’t that good. (I’m looking at you, Boston Legal.)

That’s true of Goliath, too, which has the kind of all-star cast streaming TV has become known for. It’s such a good cast that Bello is there to play a character who barely has anything to do, her character obviously destined for deeper shading in season two or three.

Even the supporting players are folks you’ll know from other shows, like Broadway vet Nina Arianda as Billy’s co-chair Patty. Arianda’s guest-starred on a number of TV shows and turns out to be the best non-Billy character on this show, constantly in over her head but trusting her moral compass to lead her the right way.

And, of course, Thornton is one of the best actors out there, constantly finding odd nuances in Kelley and Shapiro’s dialogue, and even underplaying the thundering monologue he gets in the final episode. Instead of turning it into a cry to the heavens, Thornton makes it a quiet invocation of the hope that if we just tried, we might be able to right even the smallest of injustices.

Goliath also has the high-gloss look of some of Kelley’s best shows, capturing the harsh glow of fluorescent lights against the darkness of the Los Angeles nighttime. Its scenes set on the beach near the Santa Monica pier, its roller coaster and Ferris wheel all lit up in the darkness, have the sharp tug of California noir.

But by far the thing Kelley and Shapiro do in Goliath that deserves the most attention is simply returning to a very 1990s idea of how to construct a TV show, and applying it to the modern streaming TV model. I don’t know if Goliath will be popular enough for that idea to take root, but I hope it is. Here, in this flawed, unsteady TV show, is the secret that’s eluded far too many others.

Goliath is streaming on Amazon Prime.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.