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‘Goliath’ Review: Billy Bob Thornton Goes H.A.M. on Big Business in Amazon’s Addictive Court Drama

Guilty pleasure or not, Amazon's savvy original series makes up for its genre stereotypes thanks, in part, to another winning TV turn from Billy Bob Thornton.

Goliath Billy Bob Thornton Season 1

Amazon Studios

The first two hours of “Goliath,” the new Amazon drama from David E. Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro, should remind viewers of their favorite courtroom dramas.

“A Few Good Men” certainly springs to mind, as does “The Verdict,” “A Civil Action” and “The Rainmaker.”  Various other tales of little-guy lawyers taking on impossible odds will undoubtedly pop up, depending on personal favorites, but that’s not necessarily a compliment. It’s also not a detriment. Depending on your leniency toward genre tropes, “Goliath” will either be your guilty favorite, or you’ll feel not guilty at all.

READ MORE: David E. Kelley Has Given Up on the Broadcast Networks, Partly Because His Last Show ‘Wasn’t Very Good’

Billy McBride (Billy Bob Thornton) is a drunk, down-on-his-luck lawyer scraping together plea deals wherever he can find one. Permanently living in a hotel a few blocks from the beach, McBride wakes himself up with a whiskey and goes to bed with whatever, and whomever, he can find. Yet he’s not without clarity. Even while wasting his talents slumming in the low levels of practicing law, there’s a sharpness to his decisions; an understanding that comes with earned intellect. McBride is a man who was beaten down, yes, but he’s choosing to stay there.

Until now. McBride is sought out by another lawyer (Nina Arianda), who assumes that he might want to retaliate against his former firm with a case she’s looking to settle. The drunken, divorced father of one is suddenly given renewed purpose; not because he’s looking for revenge, but because he believes in this case. Complicating matters beyond the passionate vendetta his ex-partner Donald Cooperman (William Hurt) has against him is his ex-wife, Michelle McBride (Maria Bello), who still works for the big, bad mega-firm sporting Billy’s name, Cooperman and McBride.

Goliath William Hurt Season 1

Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s meant to, especially to fans of Kelley and Shapiro’s past work. The duo behind “The Practice” and “Boston Legal” (among others) keep within a familiar framework on “Goliath,” while breaking the story across a broader canvas. Imagine your favorite attorney from a 1990s procedural thrust into the case of his life and pitted against impossible odds – but instead of a “special two-part episode,” it’s the whole series. The only plot element setting the show apart from past incarnations is how “impossible” sells this David v. Goliath battle short.

For anyone as in love with the law as Kelley and Shapiro, elevating the inherent drama of the courtroom to biblical levels may seem like a no-brainer when transitioning from episodic broadcast television to serialized streaming entertainment. They needed a story that would hit as hard when spread out over 10 episodes as was delivered each week for a 24-episode season. Starting with a guy in a pit, giving him hope and then driving him further and further into the hole certainly makes for a compelling, and lengthy, hero’s journey.

READ MORE: ‘Goliath’ Executive Producer David E. Kelley on Billy Bob Thornton and Amazon – IndieWire’s Turn It On Podcast

After all, passion is what plays in this genre — be it a defendant who’s adamant about his innocence or a lawyer who’s fighting for what she believes in. And what better way to feed off our inherent love for the underdog than creating a David v. Goliath showdown? A legal arc befitting the scripture it parallels, all based around one mysterious case? Heck, the titular reference even fits the legalese for case titles (a la “The People v. O.J. Simpson”).

Goliath Maria Bello Season 1

And boy howdy does “Goliath” earn its title. Anyone expecting McBride’s biggest problem to be a lack of manpower compared to “one of the world’s largest firms” doesn’t understand the gravity Cooperman & McBride (as well as its client) places on this case, nor the lengths it will go to stop the case from being heard. Is it a bit far-fetched? Perhaps, but we’ve seen big business held responsible for atrocious acts in real life, meaning the audience for “Goliath” is more than willing to accept that McBride’s opponents are pure evil.

Such a idea is bolstered by the top villain, Cooperman, who lives a sequestered existence in the top office of a skyscraper, looking at his minions via hidden cameras and sporting an unexplained scar across his face. With the click of his…clicky-thing, he can stop anyone from speaking, evidence of influence as wide-reaching as the view from his penthouse. All he needs is a cat to pet as he concocts his evil plan, but Hurt manages to keep him somewhat grounded (if only because he calls to mind his character in “A History of Violence,” combined with Ed Harris’).

“Goliath” makes a few more damaging mistakes early on, mainly with Bello as the ex-wife caught between loyalties. She’s a bit too dumb to be a lawyer of such high regard, and so far she’s only defined by her place between boss and ex-husband. It seems too obvious an oversight to continue much longer, though a one-dimensional love interest would certainly fit the “good ol’ days” mentality of this slightly-updated genre entry. What’s there so far is damn entertaining TV, but steady updates in the upcoming episodes could make “Goliath” truly mighty.

Grade: B+

“Goliath” premieres all 10 episodes Friday, October 14 on Amazon Prime.

READ MORE: ‘Goliath’s’ Billy Bob Thornton: How ‘Fargo’ and the Decline of Indie Film Convinced Him to Do More TV

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