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).
Kelley has said that he transitioned from broadcast to streaming networks in search of creative freedom. But what I enjoy most about the first two episodes of Goliath is their old-fashioned TVishness: Billy McBride is a textbook bad-ass who smokes in restaurants and drives a Mustang convertible. A blues-guitar lick seems to accompany his every move. When someone accuses him of drinking too much, McBride snarls, “That’s not accurate. I drink just the right amount.”
If this actually were the ’90s, McBride probably would’ve been played by Corbin Bernsen. But Thornton — in his second major TV role after his great turn in the first season of Fargo — is probably the only person who could make the character’s inherent assholery believable and endearing. Nobody is better at portraying S.O.B.s who marinate in Marlboros and Jack Daniel’s, and making them seem both relatable and larger-than-life.
While Thornton supplies Goliath with gravitas, Hurt is on hand to provide some lunacy. At times, Cooperman’s scheming is unintentionally comic; one of the best scenes from the second episode culminates with McBride thwarting Cooperman and Cooperman dramatically growling, “Nooooo!!!” But Hurt clearly is having a ball playing the disfigured Cooperman as a kind of comic book villain. Cooperman’s facial scars hint at near-sociopathic levels of malovelence hovering just below his respectable facade.
Elsewhere in Goliath, you have an angry ex-wife (Maria Bello) who puts McBride in his place, a troubled teenaged daughter (Diana Hopper), a hooker with a heart of gold (Tania Raymonde), and Dwight Yoakam as the shadowy head of a weapons manufacturing company. It’s marvelous.
Goliath won’t kickstart a new golden age of TV, but as plenty of failed masterpieces have demonstrated lately, pulling off a TV show that’s consistently engaging is no small feat. The familiar archetypes and silly plot contrivances of Goliath are all executed at a high level by skilled writers and an excellent cast. When one episode of Goliath ends, you really want to watch the next one. Goliath earns what should be considered the highest praise for a TV drama: It works.