Creating a limited series like Goliath can be something of a balancing act. Without the luxury of 13 or more episodes, there has to be a clear purpose in each scene, in each step forward. Even Fargo’s more discursive moments, during its first season, felt like they were settling us deeper into the strange universe that is the Midwest in the winter.
For all of David E. Kelley’s bona fides as a TV creator, this is something he doesn’t seem to understand just yet. This first season of Goliath, especially these midpoint episodes, feel downright larded, with a lot of padding thrown in to justify stretching this story to eight hours. Watching these two installments, I couldn’t shake the feeling that with some judicious editing, this whole narrative could be wrapped up in the length of a typical Hollywood movie.
To give Kelley and his co-creator Jonathan Shapiro credit, though, I was engrossed in every fatty minute of these episodes. Overstuffed though they were, the scenes that did matter still retained some mystery to them. There’s still no indication at this point which side of this court case is going to prevail. That kept me wincing at every setback that Billy McBride and his team went through, and cheering at every small bit of forward momentum they gained.
But seen at from afar, “Cover Your Ass” and “Line of Fire” only have a few pieces of vital information to convey: that Ryan Larson buried a prototype for a cluster bomb in the garden of his house, that Billy encouraged his “paralegal,” Brittany, to sleep with the cop that busted him for the DUI, and that a nasty gent named Karl Stoltz was doing bad stuff on behalf of Cooperman and Borns Technology before winding up dead in the trunk of Billy’s car.
As I’ve mentioned before, what keeps this series going is the work of some of the cast members. I’ve learned to love William Hurt’s scenery chewing insanity and unctuous glee at seducing his young lawyer. It’s just over-the-top enough to be distressingly believable. Nina Arianda, as Billy’s delightfully named partner in the case, Patty Solis-Papagian, keeps herself in check rather than turning the character into an Erin Brockovich act. And while Dwight Yoakam may be stuffed into designer suits, he’s still as sleazy as ever in his role as a Borns Tech executive.
The acting is what makes even the throwaway scenes worth watching. That’s certainly the case with the drama between Billy and his family. In their few moments together, the chemistry that Thornton has with Maria Bello (as his long-suffering ex-wife) and Diana Hopper (as his daughter) lends some welcome warmth to this otherwise chilly show. And when Thornton has his big moment at the end of “Line Of Fire,” facing off against Cooperman while sitting in the bowels of seedy Chinese restaurant, he and Hurt jolt everything to life as they snarl at one another like rabid dogs ready to attack.
These episodes also reveal who’s outmatched as a thespian in Goliath. Part of me understands the hiring of Olivia Thirlby as Cooperman’s paramour, as she does convey Lucy’s immaturity as a lawyer and mousy weirdness. But Kelley and company try to give the character a narrative arc that the performer just can’t connect with. Lucy is supposed to come into her own here, unveiling her vicious side and her sensual side; poor Thirlby just looks lost in both cases, keeping the same flat affect to her quavering voice and a strangely blank expression. Molly Parker only does slightly better as the evil Callie Senate, but for such an accomplished actor, she sticks surprisingly to one mode: stone cold bitch. There’s no nuance to be found, which may actually work to the show’s advantage if you’re like me, and want nothing more than for her to be knocked down a few pegs in the courtroom.
Scenes like those are what kept me up far too late binge-watching the final four episodes of Goliath (look for my write up on the last two installments next week). As groaningly bad as it was to watch Thirlby “emote,” and as aggravating as it can be to follow the show down blind alleys, those little crumbs of brilliance are surprisingly filling. Or at least enough to keep me satisfied until I can click over to watch something a lot more substantive on another streaming service.
Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.