One of the peculiar consequences of streaming television is the implicit assumption of prestige. With a few exceptions, series that air on platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hulu come presupposed with an HBO-like sheen of “quality.” “House of Cards” — despite being, at this point, purely ludicrous — laid down the template for this phenomenon: with its lush production values, portentous dialogue and overbearing score, the first Netflix Original established the troublesome precedent for streaming shows to be inherently considered “prestige TV.”
That’s why Amazon’s “Goliath” is, to be quite honest, kind of weird. Created by legal drama veteran David E. Kelley (“Ally McBeal”), the show centers around disgraced attorney Billy McBride (Billy Bob Thornton, “Fargo”) as he’s persuaded to take on an old case involving exploding boats, weapons defense systems and (somehow?) fish guts. McBride is the proverbial David to the titular Goliath he’s taking on: the law firm that once ousted him and still employs his ex-wife, Julie (Maria Bello, “Prisoners”). There’s a preposterously cartoon villain, played by William Hurt (“Captain America: Civil War”) whose right side of his body is, of course, disfigured. Oh, and throw in an estranged father-daughter relationship for good measure.
The premise is familiar. The dialogue is cliché. And, for the most part, the characters are stock types. Which is why “Goliath” is odd. Simply the description “Amazon drama starring Billy Bob Thornton” is enough to generate excitement on its own, but the show looks and feels like little more than a serialized network procedural. Save for the judiciously deployed F-bombs and the lack of a “case-of-the-week” structure, there’s no reason this show couldn’t have aired on CBS.
But there’s something to be said for Kelley’s more middlebrow intentions. While it feels, at times, like a poor man’s “Terriers” — a cancellation that should remain a huge stain on the collective TV industry’s conscience — “Goliath” might be on to something. There’s a sense of comfort in knowing exactly what these characters are going to say when they admonish Billy for his excessive drinking, or being able to predict, correctly, that the young associate with the stutter will be the one chosen to spearhead the case. The standard beats are hit, and they’re hit hard. There’s a reason this formula is so successful; it’s just jarring, and potentially revolutionary, to experience it on a streaming network.
The show’s most attractive draws, then, are its lead performances. Little else is more gratifying than hearing Thornton’s folksy, Southern-inflected voice spout lines like, “I’m not some sort of gardener rapist,” and, “Let’s go be pals and shit.” As evidenced by his turn in “Fargo,” he can hide considerable menace behind his easy charm. And Nina Arianda (“Florence Foster Jenkins”) is surprisingly effective as the energetic, exasperated and wonderfully named Patty Solis-Papagian. Bello, meanwhile, elevates what she can with an ex-wife archetype — though she does figure prominently in the plot — and Molly Parker (“House of Cards”) does her best in a somewhat out-of-place lawyer role.
One has to wonder how much money Thornton, Bello and their similarly esteemed colleagues were offered. Was it simply the sheen of prestige, of “streaming on Amazon Prime” that lured them in? Because “Goliath,” save for a typically charismatic Thornton performance, is a particularly inoffensive offering in the streaming wars. The effect is odd, like expecting “The Night Of” and instead getting “Damages.” Thus, “Goliath” is a strange entity: it’s to be commended for being thoroughly secure in its middling ambitions, but it’s also of a template that’s been done before — and better — many times over.