Goliath shows how David E. Kelley turns the legal drama into art

Goliath is one of the better dramas to have come along recently. The Amazon legal drama is about a lawyer taking on the powerful. Billy Bob Thornton plays a middle-aged lawyer who is struggling after once having a successful career. When he takes on a case against a large company he rediscovers his talent and his desire for the work. The show is a modern-day retelling of the Goliath story with Thornton’s character cast in the role of David. Goliath has already done very well – it has received a lot of acclaim and in February it was renewed for a second season.

Goliath is the creation of David E. Kelley, who is a very successful TV writer and producer. Kelley has had a great career since the 1980s when he first began working in TV. He initially started out as a lawyer and then became a screenwriter. He wrote numerous episodes of LA Law, then he made the shows Picket Fences, Ally McBeal, the Practice and Boston Legal, amongst others. Goliath is his newest legal drama. The show was created by Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro who also has a background in the law.

A writer is supposed to write about what they know. Kelley’s main theme as a writer is the law and he has made a number of legal dramas and comedies. His shows explore the legal world in various ways, though the tone differs wildly – the Practice is dark and earnest, Ally McBeal is a romantic comedy, while Boston Legal is a cynical acidic work bordering on satire.

In television a producer is a creative force, but they don’t necessarily write their show themselves. Some producers have a team of writers who make the show for them. A producer like Shonda Rhimes, for instance, doesn’t do a huge amount of writing even though she is the leading voice on her shows. David E. Kelley, though, is hands-on – he writes a lot for his shows and he has said he can write a script for a TV episode in a few days. His television work really is his own work and his vision.

Goliath is a good illustration of his voice. He writes about the legal profession and tackles serious cases but also includes a lot of humor and wit. He uses the framework of a legal drama to write about various topics and examine our world. Goliath is a meditation on modern power structures and how toxic they can be to society. The show is about a huge corporate law firm and a technology company which is behaving in a dangerous way. They are the villains of the series. The protagonists of the show are the little people who have come into conflict with these organizations and who have fallen victim to them.

Kelley has a knack for characterization and for creating characters who are distinct and unique. A lot of his characters are likeable but off kilter.

One of his biggest shows was Ally McBeal, which was ostensibly a show about single women and their romantic lives, or it was perceived that way anyway.  The series was that, but it was much more complicated and nuanced than that. It had interesting and off-beat characters, many of whom were eccentrics and daydreamers who were out of step with the people around them. They were odd and rich and compelling to watch.

Good characters enliven a show and make it something more meaningful than just another stock genre piece. Goliath also has strong characters. The central character in Goliath is Billy McBride, an ageing lawyer who has some problems. He seems to have lost his way after falling out with the law firm which he himself founded. At the start of the show he is adrift and has stopped doing meaningful work.

In the course of the series he is asked to take on a case involving a killing on the ocean. The case is suspicious and leads to corruption; it also becomes a formidable legal challenge. This proves to be an intellectual exercise which reawakens his talent. When he gets into a courtroom he is brilliant and has great instincts – even though he is washed up, he has a great legal mind.

The other characters are a crew of misfits and underdogs who come together to form a legal team with McBride. They lack the wealth and might which a huge law firm has and their whole operation is ramshackle. Yet, they are the ones in the right.

The whole season is about the one case, which becomes a courtroom battle against an enormous law firm. Kelley has said that he wanted to explore a case in more detail than the format of a procedural show would allow. The show makes a good use of the serial format and has exciting courtroom scenes which are detailed but never boring.

Kelley uses the law as a device to examine human behavior. At least half of Goliath is about the wealthy law firm which takes on McBride in court.  The show is not so much about corrupt people but about the conflicted people who are caught up in the corruption. The lawyers at the corporate law firm are not necessarily evil people and some of them feel ambiguous about what is happening. The show also focuses on the pressures which women face in the workplace, as the boss of the firm is exploiting the female lawyers who work for him, pitting a young rookie lawyer against a more mature counterpart and forcing these women to vie for his approval.

Kelley has said that he has a plan for three years of Goliath and that the next season would feature a new case. There is a fair amount left to explore with the central character so there definitely is the potential for further stories involving McBride. A further season might not feature the villains of season one, but the modern world can certainly provide inspiration for more stories involving the powerful and wealthy. It should be interesting to see where the show goes.

Image – Lawyer. Author – Wesley Fryer at Flickr



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