Like a lot of TV viewers, I’ve grown a little weary of the excesses of Peak TV. While I appreciate the ambition and stylistic diversity of contemporary television shows, and there’s no question that the quantity of quality programming is greater than ever, I get annoyed sometimes by the over-abundance of comedies that aren’t funny and dramas that are dramatically inert.
Sometimes, you just want a show that works. We live in an age where showrunners are trying to create the TV equivalent of the Great American Novel — again, that’s a noble pursuit, but after a long work day, you might want to be simply entertained rather than blown the f*ck away.
Lately, I’ve been drawn to shows that have the trappings of “prestige” television — movie-star actors, online buzz, a cinematic sensibility — but at their core are just updated versions of the unapologetically conventional TV dramas that I grew up on. I’ve taken to calling these “Nouveau ’90s” shows, as they’re pitched somewhere between the satisfying procedurals of Law & Order and NYPD Blue and the well-crafted cheese of Nash Bridges.
My favorite new drama of early 2016 was Showtime’s Billions, a deliriously pulp-y romp in which federal attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) engages in much legal wrangling and out-and-out trash talk with corrupt hedge-fund bad boy Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis). Billions is a smart show that was insightful about the raging machismo that fuels and ultimately undermines Wall Street. But it also delivers the goods every week, dispensing loads of sex, vulgarity, shocking plot twists and dastardly heel turns straight out of Addictive Serial TV 101. As a result, unlike a lot of critically acclaimed TV dramas I could name, I never allowed episodes of Billions to accumulate in my queue. I needed to watch it every week. Billions owned me.
This summer, I was similarly enraptured by HBO’s The Night Of, a superbly written and photographed noir that essentially transformed a 43-minute episode of Law & Order into a seven-episode epic. Some detractors of The Night Of wielded the word “procedural” against the show like an epithet. But coming after indulgent “prestige” disasters like season two of True Detective and Vinyl, HBO needed to retrench with a show that could competently tell a coherent story, once the bare minimum requirement for a TV drama.
This fall, I’ve become hooked on Goliath, a new legal drama created by TV veteran David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, The Practice, Boston Legal) that premieres Friday on Amazon. Goliath stars Billy Bob Thornton, in full-on Bad Santa/The Bad New Bears/charming dirtbag mode, as down-and-out L.A. lawyer Billy McBride, a once-brilliant legal mind who now spends his days in one of those awesome beachside dives that in real life would be overrun with hipsters, but in the TV universe is populated by just a solitary curmudgeon.
Through a series of circumstances that aren’t particularly important to know about in advance of watching the pilot, McBride gets a shot at redemption: A case involving an evil corporation and the mysterious death of a former employee that was initially ruled an accident but, of course, isn’t. If you’ve seen The Verdict, you can guess what happens next: Billy stops drinking, pulls himself together, and readies himself to do battle with an impossibly powerful corporate law firm headed by former partner and current nemesis, Donald Cooperman (William Hurt).