As cable and streaming outlets and their original series have taken flight in recent years, it seems as though David E. Kelley has stayed behind, earthbound.
He once was a TV warrior, a guy who forced open the definitions of what series TV could be. Like Aaron Sorkin, he remains an essential fiber in the root system of TV auteurism, having made a few starkly original and influential 1990s series including “Ally McBeal” and “Picket Fences.” Years before celebrated cable creator-writers such as David Chase and Matthew Weiner broke through, Kelley was ushering a new, robust sense of voice and vision — as well as magical realism, with his primitive Dancing Baby GIF — into tired network storytelling.
But in recent years, Kelley has been markedly uninspired, plodding along with rote network fare such as “Monday Mornings,” “Harry’s Law,” and “The Crazy Ones.” Like Shonda Rhimes after “Grey’s Anatomy,” he has seemed more like a factory brand than an artist.
So I’m happy to report that he seems to have reengaged with his ambitions with his new Amazon series, “Goliath,” whose first eight-episode season is available on Friday. He’s back from oblivion. “Goliath” isn’t a groundbreaker by any means — it bears some resemblance to Glenn Close’s “Damages” — but it’s a solidly entertaining legal thriller that benefits enormously from Billy Bob Thornton’s strong lead. With “The Practice,” Kelley proved he could build drama (alongside quirk) in a legal milieu, and with “Goliath” — and the freedoms that come with a commercial-free venue — he pushes that ability further along in a John Grisham-esque direction.
Thornton plays Billy McBride, a formerly brilliant trial lawyer who helped set up the 1,000-lawyer firm Cooperman & McBride before falling into alcoholism. He lives in a cheap motel in Venice Beach, divorced from Michelle (Maria Bello), who still works at the firm, and he conducts business — and visits with his 16-year-old daughter — out of a local tavern. He’s close to hitting bottom when he’s drawn into a case involving an explosion on a fishing boat. The case pits him, the David, against his former colleagues at Cooperman & McBride, the Goliath. With the help of idiosyncratic pals including an escort (Tania Raymonde) and a lawyer-realtor (the amusing Nina Arianda), he gets his groove — and his moral compass — back.
That’s more or less all you need to know, plot-wise. It’s a fairly conventional season-long arc — tightly written by Kelley and co-creator Jonathan Shapiro, but nonetheless familiar. The scrappy McBride is battling powerful folks who’d rather intimidate and murder than risk being exposed.
But “Goliath” is also character-driven, and Thornton shines in that aspect of the drama. Like John Turturro’s John Stone in “The Night Of,” he’s aiming for redemption through this one big case, willing himself forward despite the many obstacles, including his own self-destructive tendencies. He’s the good guy, it seems, but he’s not above illegal activities in order to win, and Thornton makes that balance work. On the first season of “Fargo,” he was excellent but, at times, too arch, too symbolic of cold-blooded evil. On “Goliath,” he’s a fully believable guy who doesn’t need our sympathy but gets it anyway.
Unfortunately, the Cooperman & McBride side of the story is less naturalistic. As on “Damages,” the bad guys are really, really bad — almost parodies of TV bad guys. William Hurt is Cooperman, McBride’s former friend and current enemy — and, as the firm’s Callie (Molly Parker) puts it, Cooperman is “one of life’s truly magnificent haters.” He sits in his darkened office, a mysterious large scar on his face, video-spying on his lawyers and plotting against McBride. Kelley is famous for giving his comedic characters oddball tics, including nose-whistling; here, he gives Cooperman a dramatic tic, as the guy clicks on a clicker during conversations like a dog trainer. Perhaps as the season unfolds, Hurt will be able to develop his character beyond this generic villain cutout.
I’m definitely on board for what is going to be a battle of biblical proportions, just to find out how the little guy does with his slingshot.
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, William Hurt, Maria Bello, Molly Parker, Sarah Wynter, Olivia Thirlby, Dwight Yoakam, Tania Raymonde, Nina Arianda. On: Amazon, available Friday