I like Billy Bob Thornton so much that I once joked I’d watch him make soup for two hours. Turns out that’s pretty much what he’s doing in the new Amazon legal series Goliath, from David E. Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro (who gave us The Practice and Boston Legal, among other series).
I don’t mean literally: He’s not playing a chef, but a lawyer, specifically a once-hotshot but now down-and-out lawyer who takes court-appointed cases for pocket change and works out of a bar in Santa Monica, not too far from the motel where he and his liquor bottles reside. When I say he’s making soup here, I mean he’s taking whatever cultural leftovers and often-predictable dialogue he’s been given by Kelley and Shapiro and trying to turn it into something delicious. He succeeds. The show is not great; the talk is either too expository or too ordinary, particularly in scenes where responsible characters chastise Thornton’s Billy McBride. And a lot of the time the storytelling is needlessly pokey, dragging through situations that are too familiar from too many other series and movies, as if trying to make us think Goliath is arty and atmospheric and “character-driven.” (The beach town setting and small-time heroes versus big-time bad guys plotting both evoke Terriers, one of the greatest one-and-done seasons in TV history.)
But on the other hand: behold Billy Bob Thornton, the redneck Bogart, the Laurence Olivier of Arkansas, the closest thing we’ve got right now to a 1970s scuzzy-yet-warm character actor as leading man, a guy who could’ve held his own with Warren Oates in a Peckinpah film. Thornton is the main reason why I watched the first two episodes. His character is cut from the same frayed cloth as John Turturro’s shambling defense lawyer on The Night Of, Paul Newman in The Verdict, Matthew McConaughey in The Lincoln Lawyer, et al. Billy is a local eccentric, a has-been who gets pulled into a maritime civil suit involving an explosion at sea, and he attempts to get justice from a major corporation whose law firm just happens to be the same one he founded and that still employs his ex-wife (Maria Bello), along with her co-worker and sister in Tracy Flick-ness (Molly Parker). Of course Billy starts to overcome his worst tendencies and rediscover both his ingenuity and his idealism and actually give a damn about life again. Of course he becomes a David against his adversaries’ Goliath, and a major irritant to his former partner (William Hurt), the disfigured co-founder of the Big Bad Law Firm who has access to surveillance cameras and microphones all over the Los Angeles area and uses them to watch peoples’ lives the way most of us watch TV shows. Of course, of course, of course. There is not a second of Goliath that you haven’t seen somewhere else in some other form with more ingenuity.
Billy Bob Thornton acts as if that’s not the case. It’s a pleasure to see his character’s dawning awareness of how far he’s fallen and how easily he could recapture what he once was if he simply commits to the job again, and to being a marginally less sleazy person. It’s also a pleasure to watch Thornton’s face as another character dresses Billy down, because he’s so good at conveying interiorized shame and embarrassment, of a sort that the people looking his character in the eye can never see because he’s coming on like a smug, wise-ass bad boy who can’t be rattled by that kind of thing. The entire cast is better than the material, but Thornton in particular is working at such a high level that the gap between his talent and the quality of the writing and filmmaking eventually becomes a show in itself. There’s usually more happening in a close-up of Thornton’s face than in whatever scene contains it. You can see thoughts taking shape in his character’s mind, as well as a withering self-regard jousting against hope: Am I up to this challenge? Wouldn’t I rather just sit here and drink? That’s all I’m good for, right? Thornton can do an internal monologue without dialogue, just by looking at other actors in a certain way, or not looking at them when you’d expect him to, or smiling in a sarcastic-seeming way, or shifting the position of his body, or deciding to move or not move his hands, or by taking a drag on a cigarette while walking down a crowded street.
I realize that roles like the one he had in season one of Fargo, and that the Coen Brothers wrote for him in The Man Who Wasn’t There, and that he wrote for himself in Sling Blade don’t come along that often, and that Goliath is probably a lot better than whatever shows Thornton and Hurt and Parker and Bello get offered during a typical year, and that actors have to work no matter what. None of the above should be construed to mean he his colleagues are slumming — just that their skills are so formidable that not a moment passes that you don’t wish Goliath were better able to challenge them.
They still make good soup, though.