You’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve met Billy McBride a hundred times before. He’s a down-and-out attorney living in a beachside motel in Santa Monica (perhaps the last one that hasn’t been subsumed by gentrification) and nursing a midday drinking habit at Chez Jay, the dive bar next door. An attractive woman seeks him out, needing his help in bringing a wrongful-death suit against a major defense contractor that used to be one of McBride’s biggest clients.
Things initially feel bland and noirish (except when they feel a tad “Michael Clayton”-ish), but mostly, in the first episode of Amazon’s eight-part legal drama “Goliath,” they come off as disappointingly paint-by-numbers. That’s a shame, because the second and third episodes of “Goliath” improve considerably in terms of building suspense and quirky characters. Before you know it you’re hooked enough to see it through.
“Goliath” is the first streaming series from David E. Kelley, and it has a style that fans of his TV standouts “Ally McBeal” and “Boston Legal” will recognize in the playful edginess of the dialogue and the overall sense that a law firm is just a fancy snake pit. Billy Bob Thornton, a film actor who found new purpose in the first season of FX’s “Fargo,” stars as McBride, the forsaken founder of a big L.A. firm that nevertheless still bears his name and employs his ex-wife, Michelle (Maria Bello).
Ever Carradine plays Rachel Kennedy, who believes her brother was not at fault when he died alone in a massive explosion on a boat owned by an aerospace corporation. Rachel’s ambulance-chasing attorney, Patty Solis-Papagian (Nina Arianda), furiously tries to dissuade McBride from helping her client, only because Patty is intent on getting a quick settlement.
But McBride sniffs around enough to sense that there’s a coverup — one that leads directly back to his old firm, now controlled by his creepy ex-partner, Donald Cooperman (William Hurt), a recluse who watches his employees on camera and deliberately pits female attorneys against one another.
Cooperman assigns a young associate (Olivia Thirlby) to lead the defense; he also forces her to have sex with him, which “Goliath” portrays as what I suppose Kelley and company think is a titillating (and consensual) abuse of power, but, given the current political climate, feels outdated and gratuitously misogynistic.
Then again, this is not a series where any character is seen in his or her best light — and it’s to the cast’s credit that they are able to improve on what Kelley and company have given them to work with. “Goliath” has plenty of moments where it verges on predictably prolonged melodrama, but it also has scenes that gracefully elevate the courtroom-suspense genre.
Goliath (eight episodes ) is now streaming on Amazon. (Disclosure: The Washington Post is owned by Amazon’s chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos.)