David E. Kelley and Billy Bob Thornton mount impressive comebacks in ‘Goliath’

In his day, Billy McBride was the best damn lawyer his colleagues had ever seen, a courtroom virtuoso and founding partner of one of the biggest law firms in the world. Now, though, he's an alcoholic who lives in a motel, works out of the bar next door, and is either a joke to those who only know him like this or a sad cautionary tale to those who remember his glory days.

David E. Kelley, the writer who co-created Goliath, the new Amazon drama in which Billy (played by Billy Bob Thornton) is the central character, was once every bit the colossus of the TV legal drama. As creator and/or executive producer of shows like L.A. Law, Picket Fences, The Practice, Ally McBeal, and Boston Legal, Kelley won 10 Emmys himself – including the unprecedented, unlikely to be duplicated feat of winning the comedy and drama series Emmys in the same year (Ally and The Practice in 1999) – and wrote characters and monologues that have won his actors over three dozen more across various series. He's one of the greatest wordsmiths to ever work for the small screen (it's him, Sorkin, and Milch in some order at the top when it comes to TV oratory). And while he hasn't had a fall anywhere near as precipitous or embarrassing as Billy McBride's, his work in this century has often felt like a shadow, or self-parody, of his '80s and '90s peak (though even then, Kelley's love of character quirks could make him his own worst enemy), and his last two series, TNT's “Monday Mornings” and CBS' “The Crazy Ones,” came and went with little notice. (Even Kelley admits that “The Crazy Ones” “wasn't very good.”) Kelley's work once represented the best the medium could aspire to, but the medium long since passed him by.

So the story of the once-mighty Billy McBride pulling himself out of the bottle to take on a wrongful death claim against his old firm's biggest client feels like the appropriate subject for Kelley to attempt his own big of career reinvention, a former broadcast network lion trying his hand with an intensely serialized streaming drama.

In the second episode of Goliath (Amazon releases the full season tomorrow; I've seen the first six hours), Billy warns a skeptical colleague, “I'm actually doing this again. So get ready for it, will ya?” It's a boast that Kelley himself could probably make, as Goliath in its early stages is Kelley's tightest, least self-conscious, most satisfying show since those first few Practice seasons.

Though Kelley, who made the series with Practice and Boston Legal alum Jonathan Shapiro, can't resist some of his usual tics – particularly anything involving William Hurt as Billy's former partner Donald Cooperman, whose face is half-covered in burn scars, and who spends most of his time lurking in his dark office, watching the other lawyers on video monitors and using a clicking device to register his disapproval – Goliath on the whole is straightforward hard-boiled legal drama, lean and mean and featuring a marvelous central character in Billy McBride. Like his writers, Thornton's not doing anything fancy in the role, but there's a welcome looseness to the performance to go along with his naturally abundant charisma. Billy doesn't spend his days beating himself up for all the mistakes he's made and all that he's lost in the process – including ex-wife Michelle (Maria Bello, whose underuse is the show's biggest failing) and teenage daughter Denise (Diana Hopper) – but simply goes about his diminished routine, accepting that this is where his choices have brought him. When his new client Rachel (Ever Carradine) says that a Google search told her that he drinks too much, he shoots back, “That's not accurate. I drink just the right amount.” His every move in the case suggests the line by our new Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan about how when you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose. It's a star performance.

Kelley and Shapiro have mostly surrounded Billy with a female cast of characters, including his partner on the case Patty Solis-Papagian (Nina Arianda), legal secretary Brittany Gold (Tania Raymonde), Cooperman's icy right-hand woman Callie Senate (Molly Parker), and junior associate Lucy Kittridge (Olivia Thirlby). Writing women has often led Kelley to indulge the worst of his writing tics – Ally McBeal infamously inspired a Time magazine cover with the headline “IS FEMINISM DEAD?” –  and there's certainly some of that with this bunch, from Lucy's stutter to Brittany's day job as a high-end call girl, but the sheer number of women involved offers a wide enough spectrum of personalities and temperaments to get by.

The writers are obviously enjoying the freedoms that come from leaving the network business, and Arianda in particular swears so frequently and creatively that it feels like 30 years of unwritten profanity are bursting out of Kelley all at once.  And where many writers – both TV veterans and newcomers to the medium – have struggled at times with the streaming narrative model that tries to tell one long narrative without differentiating by episode, Kelley and Shapiro manage to find the sweet spot between the two forms. This is all one big story, but each episode builds to an interesting climax that drives the story forward, and there's not the usual sag you get with a lot of the serialized Amazon and Netflix dramas. They've adapted to this form very well, and the flaws in the show are more baked into what Kelley does, particularly in Hurt's supervillainy. (His best scene, by far, is a Heat-esque encounter between Billy and Donald in the sixth episode, where it becomes clear that most of Cooperman's affectations are an act he puts on to intimidate his colleagues.)

The show's title comes from the notion of Billy's tiny operation taking on this huge form and the conglomerate it represents, but also from one of his favorite scenes from Hoosiers, a movie he quotes frequently. It's an underdog story co-created by, and about, a man who was once a goliath himself and now has many things to prove. Billy runs into many obstacles in his case as Cooperman's team busts out every dirty trick in the book (many illegal, some fatal) to stop him, but Kelley and Shapiro are doing very well so far as they try starting over.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com