Wednesday, June 13, 2018

TV REVIEW: Amazon's 'Goliath' - Season 2

Amazon's Goliath returns for its second season on Friday, June 15. The new season stars Billy Bob Thornton, Nina Arianda, Ana De La Reguera, Tania Raymonde, Diana Hopper, Matthew Del Negro, Mark Duplass and Morris Chestnut.

Read on for my thoughts on the new season after screening its first five episodes.

Back in October 2016 when Goliath debuted its first season, the state of Amazon was so completely different than what it is now. It was a time when the streaming service was still proud of its public pilot process. That was the way that it was conducting business. It was trying to merge the old world with the new one. Streaming is the future. But it still wanted to uproot the traditional pilot process by making it seem like the world at large was deciding which shows to produce. Goliath was the first show that Amazon ever gave a straight-to-series order to. The executives did that because it was David E. Kelley once again writing a legal procedural. That was exciting and Amazon wanted to be in business with him. It was a deal that would eventually become the norm at the streaming service. Yes, Amazon is still making pilots. But it is no longer having the public vote on them. They are now placing their full trust in the development team to actively produce shows and give notes so that when production begins Amazon will know if it's worthy of that investment. Goliath has also been known for all of the behind-the-scenes turmoil. It's a show that has wildly gone over its budget for both of its seasons so far. The two seasons were both initially ordered for ten episodes. But due to production demands and finished episodes being scrapped, those orders were eventually reduced down to eight. It was a part of the overall story of chaos at Amazon under the previous regime. Right now, the streaming service has new management. Jennifer Salke has come in from NBC with a new vision that will hopefully help the service compete with Netflix and Hulu. Yes, Amazon still has millions of subscribers. Hulu really shouldn't be perceived as a threat at the moment. But it's been difficult for Amazon to produce a show that was able to cut through all of the noise and be a massive yet. Goliath was once labeled as the most viewed show on Amazon. It should be interesting to see if those statistics manage to hold up in the second season after a year and a half hiatus and multiple showrunner changes.

It's important to note that David E. Kelley and co-creator Jonathan Shapiro are no longer involved in Goliath whatsoever. They are still credited as the creators of the show. But they aren't executive producers for the new season. The chaos at Amazon was enough for Kelley to refer to them "as a bit of a gong show." That has been a very infamous comment about the horrible culture at Amazon over the last few years. Now, those executives are out of their jobs with Salke being able to bring in a completely new team. But the second season of Goliath was still produced under that former leadership. Once it was clear that Kelley and Shapiro would be leaving over creative differences, Clyde Phillips from Nurse Jackie and Dexter was brought in as the new showrunner to handle the day-to-day tasks involved with the drama. He produced four episodes of the season as well. And then, the cut for the premiere didn't come in great with Amazon and Billy Bob Thornton deciding to just scrap all of the material already worked on and start over completely. That led to another new showrunner coming in. That time it was director and executive producer Lawrence Trilling. He has been with the show since the very beginning. He directed four episodes of the first season - including the premiere and the finale. As such, he understands this world and the stories being told. But it's also clear throughout these new episodes that there really isn't much focus to the new narrative. It's a story just pieced together with assumptions of what the audience should like without really giving us a reason to actually care. It's disappointing because I enjoyed the first season of this show. Yes, it had a wonky ending where it didn't give Billy the opportunity to show himself off as this great and efficient lawyer who could sway the jury to win his case. It was a more lowkey ending that still produced a hefty payday for him and his clients. But that still felt like the journey that the show wanted to achieve and ultimately executed. Through five episodes of the second season, I simply have no clue what the people behind the show are actively trying to say about anything.

In the new season, Goliath wants to show that some things are still fundamentally the same. Billy is still living and working out of that hotel room even though he has the money to buy a new car, a new house and leave big tips wherever he goes. He and Nina Arianda's Patty team up to work on a new case where the system seems stacked against them and their new client. Tania Raymonde's Brittany is back doing legal work for them despite her actions at the end of last season. But much of the supporting ensemble changes from last year. In the first season, Billy has battling against this gigantic firm that had the resources and manpower to actually destroy him in the case. It was the classic story of David vs. Goliath which ultimately gave the show its title. And now in the second season, the new Goliath is the political environment of Los Angeles as well as a dangerous cartel operating out of Mexico. It's a weird transition because it means that less time is spent actually in the courtroom with two teams of lawyers presenting their cases and trying to manipulate the judge. Sure, that is still an aspect of the new season. But it no longer feels as personal as it was before. It feels like the show utilizing the same tricks that it came up with last season. And so, there are characters who die which motivates Billy into taking action because he sees that this is a case worth pursuing even though he initially has no interest in it. He brings the team back together, works with the FBI to find witnesses and uncover clues and is intimidated by the people who don't want the truth to come to light about their nefarious actions. It could be very topical for the show to be shining a light on the corruption of politics and its influence on cases. But that's not the focus here at all. The political subject is a complete afterthought to all of the stuff going on with the cartel and the various eccentricities of the new supporting characters.

The case this season follows Julia Suarez (Diego Josef) who has been arrested for double homicide. He is accused of killing the gang members who killed his two older brothers who were associated with a rival gang. He's not involved in that lifestyle at all. He is being framed for this crime. It's Billy and Patty's job to prove that in court and find the true killer and the motive behind it. The show is surprisingly more forthcoming with answers upfront about who did what and why. The audience knows more of the truth about the case than Billy and Patty do. And yet, that represents a key problem because the audience is running so much faster than them which runs the risk of making them seem dumb. It's a cover-up that includes Ana De La Reguera as Marisol Silva, a city councilwoman running for Mayor of Los Angeles; Dominic Fumusa as Detective Keith Roman, the lead investigator handling the case; and Matthew Del Negro and Mark Duplass as political operators Danny Loomis and Tom Wyatt who have a vested interest in the outcome of the mayoral race and keeping the cartel happy. Those are the big new additions to the season. Furthermore, Morris Chestnut and Lou Diamond Phillips show up as the prosecutor on the case and Julio's father respectively. And yet, they are significantly deprived of interesting material - to the point where one has to question why such talented actors were cast in those roles to begin with. This is still a solid acting showcase for many of the characters in the ensemble - which also includes recurring roles for Alexandra Billings, James Wolk, Paul Williams and an unrecognizable David Cross this year. But none of the new characters really stand out in an engaging way that makes the audience actually invested in the outcome of any of their stories.

Again, it's the lack of focus and vision that really fails the show this season. It mostly seems like stuff happens because the writers assume that it's what should happen. They are filling out story by really beefing up the oddities of a couple of characters - like the leader of the cartel also being a surgeon who likes to remove limbs or another character who is sexual aroused by people simply touching their amputated body parts. It's all weird and pointless. That's not even diving into the story of Billy Bob Thornton's new love interest being twenty years younger than him. She is also possibly conspiring against him in this case because she has conflicted connections to all sides of this story. It again feels like a story that should be powerful, dramatic and important. And yes, there are a very few handful of scenes where everything works and it is quite interesting to watch. But that doesn't make up for the fact that the story drags in several significant moments where the audience may be watching the time to see how much story is left. If the show is renewed for a third season, I hope that another new showrunner is brought in. Sure, it would be bad press for the series once more because of an additional behind-the-scenes change. But it would greatly benefit the actual story of the show to have an experienced individual behind the wheel with a solid take on an important story that needs to be told instead of a story that is so melodramatic and forced in every single moment.