“Goliath,” a new series on Amazon with all eight episodes available for streaming, starts with a literal bang.
A pleasure craft with ties to a defense contractor mysteriously explodes off the coast of Los Angeles, setting off a chain of events that leads disgraced attorney Billy McBride (Billy Bob Thornton) to reluctantly climb off his bar stool, press pause on his self-exile and begin asking questions of some powerful people.
Some of these people he already knows, including his ex-wife (Maria Bello), a top lawyer at McBride’s former firm, which represents the weapons manufacturer. Others he will meet in a variety of discomforting ways as the plot gallops forward.
Part legal thriller, part neo noir, “Goliath” comes courtesy of David E. Kelley, once dubbed “the king of prime time” for his work on network shows such as “Boston Legal,” “The Practice” and “Ally McBeal.” Longtime collaborator Jonathan Shapiro, a former federal prosecutor, is credited as co-creator, and “Goliath,” at least in the two episodes made available to critics, crackles with courtroom crosstalk and devious legal maneuverings.
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Kelley and Shapiro are versed in creating sound if conventional entertainment and seem to relish painting on the streaming world’s broader canvas, one that’s not limited by commercial breaks or FCC standards. And though the show displays an occasional hoary impulse (the tough but friendly prostitute working as a legal assistant, for example), it mostly creates a universe of finely drawn characters.
The center of this universe, McBride, was one of the finest trial lawyers in L.A., and his name remains on the law firm he co-founded. The role feels tailor-made for Thornton, who plays McBride with a nicotine-stained brio that conceals a deep shame and deeper self-loathing, the roots of which likely will be revealed as the series unfolds.
McBride’s skills are apparent as he investigates what happened on that boat, finding witnesses’ pressure points by toggling between kindness and hostility, keeping them – and us – off balance.
As the title suggests, “Goliath” is careening toward a confrontation with an outsized adversary. The probable candidate is McBride’s former partner, the reclusive and disfigured Donald Cooperman, played with delicate menace by William Hurt, in a role that brings to mind his gangster turn in David Cronenberg’s 2005 film “A History of Violence,” which also starred Bello.
A day-drinking lawyer may seem like the underdog when going up against the head of a morally corrupt mega law firm. But it’s clear McBride is staggering into battle with more than just a single rock in his sling.
Streaming on Amazon