In a recurring visual and ambient leitmotif for the fine and sometimes perversely magnetic Amazon show Goliath, a crane shot brings us swooping down on the Ocean Lodge Hotel in Santa Monica. This visual cue adds mythic and film noir-ish measure to the humble home of our antiheroic protagonist, lawyer Billy McBride (Billy Bob Thornton), who we quickly learn has descended from champion attorney to elbow-bending downward spiral. He also spends much time in the nearby retro-kitschy watering hole Chez Jay — to marinate, to work, to pass the hours of his sorry life — and occasionally drifts to the Santa Monica Pier area, bottle and self-destructive will at the ready.
But alas, in a scenario reminiscent of Paul Newman’s sodden but rebounding character in The Verdict, and any number of other models in film and television, a case lands in his lap so ripe and so demanding of bringing to justice, he snaps out of his stupor (if stopping short of actual sobriety) and gets very busy. Courtesy of the dimple-grinned Thornton’s strange blend of Southern charm and pockets of venom, our hero brings out his suitcase of cunning and doggedness to a David v. Goliath–esque fight against an immoral weapons corporation and the death of a worker by exploding boat.
In a legal battlefield with a deep-pocketed, government-abetted defense company, the challenges are many — including intimidation, judge-baiting, framing, and possible visits from a hit man. Thornton resorts to clever and resilient tactics, such as calling on his friend Brittany (Tania Raymonde), a prostitute with a heart of gold and a habit. The plot’s thickening includes his former partnership — and now contentious sparring partner — with creepy law-firm magnate Donald Cooperman (William Hurt, in another of his sordidly compelling roles, killing it softly), who responds to the pending legal action with, “I want a ‘shock and awe’ shit show. Should this man sue us, he needs to regret it.” Billy’s ex-wife (Maria Bello) still works with him. Side plots involve the tension of his tenuous relationship with his daughter, in-house conniving at the law firm, and our hero’s own redemption.
Back to the Ocean Lodge crane shots: That touch also represents a fascinating morphing medium angle tucked into Goliath, further proof of TV’s dramatic rebirth and entry into the higher quarters of American culture. Crane shots were once a sign of a big budget, rarely seen on television. Today, cheap camera-bearing drones do the trick. A once-prohibitive technology is now in the hands of the people. The eight-episode series also represents a triumphant entry into the “new TV” dimension from a hero of old-school television — David E. Kelley, he of Ally McBeal, The Practice, and Boston Legal fame. This is his first new project in eight years, and it’s in the notably different atmosphere of non-broadcast TV and its bigger budgets, with free creative control and the ability to create one fixed, long piece versus a series of undetermined length.
Thornton makes his own seamless transition from film to TV, and his bad boy savior presence itself wears very nicely in the long haul of eight hours, anchors the epic, and keeps us tuned in (be careful: it may be hard to watch just one episode at a time). In another film-echoing touch, the “Goliath” in the picture is played by the hatless Dwight Yoakam, who also played the villain factor in Thornton’s cinematic debut (and masterpiece), Sling Blade.
Goliath comes together with an uncommon and artistic small-screen power, the stuff of must-see TV. If it sometimes slips into the by-now care-worn TV law/courtroom genre, that cozy is roughed up with shady, multi-shaded characters and given a re-invigorating and artful shot in the arm. Plus, gotta love those crane shots.