In Which No One Took This News Better Than Billy Bob

Ally McShame


creators David E. Kelley & Jonathan Shapiro
Amazon Studios

Crisis in Six Scenes
creator Woody Allen
Amazon Studios

Were you wondering how white people were handling this difficult and emotional period in American history? I was, so I watched a lot of Chris Wallace and sobbed briefly during Blackish. Those queries were not answered satisfactorily, but at some point when Billy McBride (Billy Bob Thornton) is hammering his blonde client missionary-style as he pursues a wrongful death case against a conglomerate called Borns Technology, I felt the merest inkling of a familiar phenomenon: white guilt.

Thornton can’t even enjoy the golden haze that surrounds the immediate aftermath of intimacy with a woman twenty years his junior. He hops on his computer and researches his enemies. He has to do something, anything, but he does not know what. When he finds out his latest conquest has googled him, he is embarrassed, ashamed and a little excited.

Thornton is a magnificent and subtle actor, and he is a lot less believably crotchety than usual in Goliath. White hair and a shit goatee has turned him into this vague version of a decent human being. There are only so many actors who can switch from light/hearted to emotionally serious in a single moment, and this elasticity tends to overwhelm its most charismatic proponents: (Cruise, Hanks, Gosling). Thornton’s timing in contrast is completely impeccable — no one is better than he at playing utter basics.

The rest of the cast of Goliath is just as exquisite. William Hurt is in god-tier mode as Donald Cooperman, the legal titan behind McBride’s former firm. Mario Bello always deserved more from this industry and as McBride’s ex-wife you get the idea of an entire history that can’t be unpacked in just one episode. Olivia Thirlby and Molly Parker are equally amusing as high-powered corporate attorneys.

David E. Kelley’s typical chatty dialogue is everpresent here, but what’s missing is the extensive backstory he always felt forced to attach to every single character. Goliath never tiptoes around or struggles – it proceeds forward like a bullet-train, never letting a single joke outstay its welcome. It is the best thing Amazon has ever done, and thankfully no one wants to go more than a season. There is nothing to hold off on — this is so clearly a one-shot that Kelley can afford to pace things more like film than television. His efforts at movies were always underappreciated. Buried among a spate of mediocre offerings, it would be a shame if the superb Goliath meets a similar fate.

In contrast, Woody Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes has a far better concept with substantially lesser results. Allen’s projects are always hit-or-miss depending on what side of the bed he woke up that day. Crisis in Six Scenes has a lot in it that you would think can’t go wrong: Elaine May as Woody’s good-natured therapist wife, Miley Cyrus as their houseguest. Every performance in Crisis in Six Scenes is just on the verge of being amusing without ever getting there.

Set at the end of the turbulent 1960s, Allen actually has a lot to say about how white people react to events in the world around us. Crisis in Six Scenes feels like an incisive cultural essay penned by a fourteen year old. Seen in retrospect, Allen’s humorous jokes about the Vietnam War and his view of arts and culture seem far more mean-spirited than usual. It is like he is trying to show off a certain edge in a new medium and doesn’t realize he is working with a blunt knife.

Amazon has struggled to compete with the original programming efforts of Netflix, but they have substantial advantages over their competition going forward. Netflix has a ten billion dollar debt just based around the money they owe on licenses for television series they don’t own. Almost half of that is due next year, which means the size of the Netflix library is about to rapidly decline; it is already down substantially from what it once was.

Amazon has a lot more money with which to fight this battle. The direction they are taking now: avoiding niche shows in favor of projects that are more likely to appeal to the wealthy, white clientele that orders other products from them through the Amazon Prime service. Both Goliath and Crisis in Six Scenes fit this new bourgeois aesthetic, which makes it somewhat humorous that both shows are about underdogs.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan.


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