Goliath (2016)

My inclination is generally not to review things like television series–not even one that’s self-contained into a generally delineated block like a miniseries. It’s a lot of ground to cover, a lot of hours, and an experience that relies heavily on the sequential knowledge  of the series itself and the obvious room for events to layer themselves across it, for characters to develop (or reaffirm) traits throughout.

I’m struck, however, by the desire this time. Maybe it’s the restraint of general commentary I’m putting myself through, maybe it’s the visceral reaction I’ve had to the series throughout–or both, or neither. I can’t really be too terribly certain about the subject, except for the reality of that desire.

Goliath is a David E. Kelley production, who I personally know best for Ally McBeal and Boston Public, never being an active watcher of L.A. LawBoston Legal, or The Practice (though I was around their showings growing up, thanks to my mother’s viewing habits). I did not initially realize that his was one of the minds behind it, instead being drawn in by the prospect of a leading Billy Bob Thornton.

Thornton is Billy McBride, washed up attorney of questionable character, excess alcohol, estranged marriage, and peculiar companions. He’s surrounded primarily by Patty Solis-Papagian (Nina Arianda), Brittany Gold (Tania Raymonde), his daughter Denise (Diana Hopper), and, kicking off the case at the center of the series, Rachel Kennedy (Ever Carradine). Patty is a fellow lawyer, struggling to turn a no-name degree into a practice, and Brittany is a prostitute Billy has represented and haphazardly employs as a paralegal–Patty, though, also introduces him to Rachel, who insists that her brother-in-law Ryan Larson did not kill himself as his widow believes. This spirals into the associations of Larson’s former employer, Born Tech, headed by Wendell Corey (Dwight Yoakam), and represented by Cooperman/McBride. That McBride is no longer Billy, but is his ex-wife Michelle (Maria Bello), while the Cooperman is Donald (William Hurt). The firm’s namesake is not the primary counsel in the case, that honour belonging to Callie Senate (Molly Parker), Lucy Kittridge (Olivia Thirlby), and Leonard Letts (Damon Gupton).

Before I proceed, I’m going to note that it’s very probable that I’ll feel compelled to spoil parts of this series, because of the elements in it that I wish to discuss.

The cast needed to be named, because the cast is what sells every moment of the series. Regardless of the nature of the characters, the cast works with their material and makes the material work.

Which is where things start to sink a bit. Cooperman, Kittridge, and Senate are repulsive. Utterly, cartoonishly vile. There are attempts to humanize, attempts to shift–but they’re all futile. As the series proceeds and the fishy elements compound (starting, to belatedly submit information to explain a pun, with chumming Billy’s car), no one seems to question their position. People turn up dead, injured, coincidentally involved in other crimes–it’s believable that Senate, as a character, would gloss over the effects on others and regard this entirely from the perspective of its effects on the case, but it’s still a stretch. Of course, Cooperman is so blatantly evil that it’s nothing like a wonder he doesn’t care: he laughs hysterically at Billy being beaten by a paid cop (who proceeds to taze Billy’s daughter…). Kittridge and Senate vie for the affections of Cooperman, primarily as employer, but neither seems to be concerned with his manipulations of them, demanding sexual rewards for deigning to let them work cases, nor with his erratic and insane (also, re: clicker–irritating) behaviour.

This only gets worse when we factor in Michelle. Bello deserves some kind of award for certain, for managing to keep Michelle innocent and sympathetic, while she is a complete fucking moron devoid of either intelligence or moral compass in witnessing the living pieces of shit she chooses to work with. Billy’s crimes–and they aren’t minor–are hard to remember against a backdrop of torture, murder, fraud, war crimes…and yet, Michelle doesn’t seem to care or concern herself. Not even after her daughter is tazed. One would think at least that might give her pause. Her daughter is also insanely irrational, not looking at the serious problems that should perhaps give Billy reason to drop the case, but on how it affects her and her mother alone. The sheer mounts of narcissism in the show are insurmountable, and further confuse things by making Billy–perhaps largely due to Thornton’s excellently likeable performance–the only one who seems aware of the concept of empathy.

The show is intensely engaging, and had me hooked from a moment in the third episode, but my roiling, burning loathing of everyone at Cooperman/McBride was hard enough to stomach that I considered abandoning the series entirely. It didn’t manage to tweak things the “right” way for that (liking Billy avoided my problems with Breaking Bad, and the way the conspiratorial elements were set-up danced around explaining how they were unnoticed with a few of them being clever–setting up a drunk for a fake DUI is pretty believable to have go unnoticed–and otherwise being, well, not really explained meant it didn’t hit the House of Cards inability to suspend disbelief).

And that’s, then, the weird thing: alongside the performances, there’s an intelligence to the construction of the show. It manages to work so well in spite of itself. In spite of having the most repellent, unpleasant, taking-‘love-to-hate’-a-bit-too-far villains, it generally works. I’m still not sure how, because the volume of “Oh, come on…”-type moments from those characters is quite high indeed. That no one ever seemed to notice or call them on it kept me teetering on the edge of giving up on the sheer absurdity of it all, but it never quite dumped itself off that cliff. It’s weird, for that–and enough to make me quite enjoy it overall, while still leaving me with the need to express this reaction.

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