Billy Bob Thornton earned an Emmy nod for his depiction of the coldly psychotic killer Lorne Malvo in the first season of Fargo. On Amazon’s Goliath, a new legal thriller from the king of legal thrillers, David E. Kelley, Thornton plays a far warmer character, an anti-hero who actually inspires sympathy — the kind of guy who can call a woman “honey” and still come off like a mensch.
Goliath marks Kelley’s first dip into the streaming pool, and based on the first two hour-long episodes, the show appears to benefit from his decades of experience in network television. Without advertisers or network executives to answer to, dramas commissioned by streaming services like Netflix often end up bloated and unfocused. But at a taut eight episodes, Goliath’s first season — which will be available to stream on Amazon Prime on Friday — promises to be a forcefully plotted and well-acted story of corporate intrigue.
The series opens in the middle of a dark ocean at night, where two men on a small fishing trawler witness a booming explosion in the water so potent it capsizes their boat. Cut to two years later. Billy McBride (Thornton) is a down-and-out lawyer who lives in a cheap motel in Venice Beach, beside a dive bar called Chez Jay that sports a purple neon sign. Heading out the door, he grabs a scrap of bacon from a breakfast tray left outside someone’s door, and goes down for a morning drink at Chez Jay (“You can just leave the bottle,” he instructs the bartender). On his way to the bar, he steps in dog shit.
Later that day, Billy is approached by a fast-talking attorney by the name of Patty Solis-Papagian (a fantastic Nina Arianda) who runs a one-woman shop in the Valley and whose neighbor needs legal help — her brother was on the ship that exploded in the ocean in the opening scene, but the company that employed him, Borns Technology, claims he committed suicide. Since he was the only man on the ship, there’s no one to contradict the claim — except the two men on the nearby fishing boat who witnessed the explosion and who miraculously survived the capsizing of their ship.
Patty is aware of Billy’s history: Years ago, he co-founded the global corporate firm Cooperman & McBride, along with Donald Cooperman (William Hurt), the show’s devilish villain. Associates at Cooperman & McBride speak of their founder in hushed tones, never having laid eyes on him — he holes up in his office with the shades drawn, watching over his kingdom through surveillance footage of his employees at work. Cooperman also sports a giant scar that occupies the entire right half of his face; according to office gossip, the injury either comes courtesy of Vietnam or Billy McBride.
Cooperman & McBride is representing Borns Technology, and Patty hopes Billy — now an ambulance chaser — will be enticed to “try to fuck over” his old firm. To complicate matters, Billy’s ex-wife and mother of his teenage daughter, Julie (Maria Bello), is a partner at Cooperman & McBride. (Molly Parker is excellent as Julie’s colleague, the ice queen Callie.) After taking a look at the paperwork, Billy is convinced Borns Tech is hiding something.
The first two episodes set up Billy and Patty’s fight against these two monolithic companies with understated elegance. The series is a kind of L.A. noir, delighting in shots of Billy slinging back whisky in front of glowing neon signs on dark, deserted streets. But the writers don’t indulge in too many tired anti-hero tropes; we don’t spend too much time delighting in Billy’s depravity. He drinks a little too much, and he smokes, but he’s not a violent boor. In fact, and I never thought I’d be writing this in the year of our lord 2016, but he’s pretty damn sexy as a destitute single dad who goes to bed with a sleep apnea mask strapped onto his face.
Creators David E. Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro surround Billy with a circle of real, complex women, including the spunky Patty; Brittany Gold, a call girl who moonlights as Billy’s legal secretary, played by the beautiful Tania Raymonde (Cynthia from Malcolm in the Middle, you guys!); and Rachel, Patty’s friend who is determined to get justice for her brother, played by Ever Carradine (Tiffany from Once and Again, you guys!). The dynamic between Rachel and Billy — who wind up in bed together despite their mutual agreement to keep things professional — is particularly crackling; the two have a low-key chemistry that doesn’t boil so much as simmer. “You’re a sweet guy,” Rachel tells Billy, and we believe her.
Rather than indulge in bad-boy fantasies, Goliath sticks close to the legal case at its center, and its implications for each character. And despite the high stakes for everyone involved, the show feels loose and breezy; characters crack jokes, and the California sun keeps shining. The naturalistic setting is its own subtle argument in favor of the lawyers in crumpled suits going up against the corporate soul-suckers — an incentive to choose compassion over icy self-interest. It’s a lot warmer out in the sun than up in a glass tower.
The first season of Goliath is available to stream on Amazon Prime on Friday, Oct. 14.