Critical Mass

Arkansan Billy Bob Thornton a Goliath among actors

Billy Bob Thornton appears as Billy McBride in Goliath. The second season is streaming on Amazon Video.

Before we were married, Karen and I each lived for a year or two without a television, and after we got together we mainly used our Sony Trinitron to watch baseball and movies on HBO. Aside from a few months in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks in 2001, we've never watched any of the cable news channels. We've never watched a reality show. The TV doesn't hum in the background at our house.

But we do use it. We like to think of ourselves as discriminating viewers. I'm not sure this is always accurate, for while we have a relatively small rota of shows we follow, not all of them are genuinely great television. Via Netflix, we watched two seasons of a French series called Marseille, a soapy political drama starring Gerard Depardieu as the longtime mayor of the country's second largest city. He faced a political challenge from his protege -- who also happened to be the bastard son he never knew he had.

While Marseille features some gorgeous drone shots of an intriguing city, it is sillier than Downton Abbey, and I doubt we'd have given it five minutes had the actors not been speaking French. (I looked up the review by the critic who reviewed it for Paris-based Le Monde, Pierre Seriser. He wrote -- en francais, bien sur -- "In polite language, this would be called an industrial accident. In common language, it would be called dung .... what's for certain is to watch it is to suffer.")

Which brings me to the second season of Amazon Video's Goliath, released for streaming June 15 and which will be the next series we dip into.

We just finished the first season, which was released in 2016, and I'm not sure what I'd say about the show were I compelled to review it. In the first place I'd have to acknowledge that I enjoyed it, and while the first episode didn't seem all that promising, it didn't take too long to become involved with the characters.

On the other hand, it is really just a glossy legal drama writ large -- the sort of thing that John Grisham could knock out in a weekend. The narrative material might have been whittled down to a two-hour feature. Some of the characters seem extraneous, a few of the plot twists are ludicrous, but it isn't blatantly stupid about the way lawyers and cops and judges relate to one another.

Excepting a few episodes of L.A. Law at the tail end of the 1980s, I never watched any of the shows that Goliath co-creator David E. Kelley is famous for. Yet I understand he's been both praised and criticized for the way he portrays our legal system. What he gets right in the first season of Goliath is the relative irrelevance of "the truth" in a civil trial -- what's important is whether a lawyer can convince a jury the version of events he's proffering is more likely than the version of events the other side espouses.

But the real and only reason I watched the first season of Goliath and am bound to watch the second is Billy Bob Thornton as the lead character, a humbled and troubled lawyer named Billy McBride looking for redemption via a long-shot wrongful death case against a defense contractor represented by his old law firm, headed up by his former partner/arch enemy Donald Cooperman, played by William Hurt.

That's how cheesy the first season is -- underdogs, alternately plucky and beat down, going up against the impregnable military-industrial complex. It's not that good.

. . .

Yet there are a lot of things to like about it. The cast is loaded, and the casting is freighted.

Hurt is an interesting choice for the chief villain. Cooperman feels like a variation on Richie Cusack, the character Hurt played in David Cronenberg's 2005 film A History of Violence. Hurt is on screen for nine minutes in that movie and wound up with a best supporting actor Oscar nomination.

And Hurt plays a naive inept lawyer in 1981's Body Heat, a noir that -- along with 1982's The Verdict -- informs the sensibility of the series. Cooperman is the version of Hurt's feckless character in Body Heat who escaped prison and wised up; even Cooperman's facial burn scars (which are never completely explained, though they reportedly happened a long time ago) evoke the incendiary devices employed in that movie.

Another History of Violence veteran, Maria Bello, plays McBride's ex-wife Michelle, who despite a residual affection for Billy still works for the firm that kicked him out (it's not quite clear whether she's a partner, but she's obviously high status there). She works (and sometimes plays) alongside Callie (Molly Parker), a ruthless lead litigator who also has a romantic history with Cooperman. Then there's Lucy (Olivia Thirlby), a mousy young associate who attracts Cooperman's attention and, over the course of the season, proves to be a formidable adversary in her own right.

On Billy's side, there's Patty (Nina Arianda) a DUI lawyer with a night school degree who makes ends meet as a real estate agent; Brittany (Tania Raymonde), a high-end prostitute and drug addict who reluctantly works as his legal assistant and recruits her own replacement, Marva (Julie Brister).

Traveling between the two camps is Denise (Diana Hopper), Billy and Michelle's 16-year-old daughter.

Other characters bring in interesting textures: Dwight Yoakam, who worked with Thornton on Sling Blade and a slew of other projects, shows up sans Stetson as the CEO of the evil defense contractor; Jason Ritter, who plays a supercilious FBI agent on the show, is the son of Thornton's late friend John Ritter, who worked with him on Sling Blade and the early '90s sitcom Hearts Afire.

While not all of these actors have enough to do -- Marva in particular seems like a superfluous character, introduced as a sort of a punchline and given only a few lines over the course of the season -- Goliath is remarkable for the number of female characters and the size of their roles. Bello and Parker have meaty parts and the women on McBride's team are presented as remarkably competent despite their lack of credentials. It's also notable that the male characters actually seem to listen to them.

But the real reason to watch Goliath is Thornton.

. . .

I don't want to come off as a homer here, but I don't know that I've ever been as fascinated by an actor as I am by Thornton. I've watched almost all his work over the years; I know he's been involved with some misbegotten projects. I've heard the same tabloid stories and seen the same cringe-inducing videos of awful interviews you might have -- I can well understand why someone might think of him as a Hollywood weirdo.

He's a smart guy who has done a lot of things, who's played baseball and music and fell into the business he's in because that's where creative autodidacts end up when they're lucky. I have seen guys like Thornton all my life, some of them working behind counters in liquor stores, some of them in suits, and some of them shoving sandwich meat down their pants in the E-Z Mart. He's not all that strange.

He's always been gracious and generous to me and my wife, Karen, no doubt because we work for an Arkansas newspaper. We've talked a few times over the years, and he once told me that he appreciated that I've never asked him if he's a vampire. That's not what I think about when I see him on screen, I don't generally see Billy Bob Thornton from Malvern when I'm watching him. I always buy into his characterizations. I've never seen him give a bad performance, or deliver a false line.

Sometimes we just like things. Bob Dylan liked Gregory Peck, he sang that "he'd watch him in anything." Maybe that's all you ought to say about it -- overthink it and pretty soon you're pulling the wings off something beautiful. Maybe leave the mystery alone.

Acting is pretty simple if you can do it. It's really just the art -- or maybe the knack -- of being un-self-conscious when everyone is looking at you. The trick of acting is to seem like you're not acting. Some people can't do that, and it doesn't mean they're not smart or talented or sensitive, only that they can't pull off the trick of forgetting they're being scrutinized. If you can do this, you have a chance to be an actor.

There is more to it than that. Simple doesn't mean easy. There are all sorts of techniques that actors employ, but one of the best descriptions of what some people call their process was explained by Ray McKinnon in an essay a few years ago. Acting is trading your stuff for somebody else's stuff, McKinnon wrote. For a while, you offload your own problems and anxieties and hopes and fears, and pick up those of the character.

While Thornton has always been reluctant to talk about his process, it's rooted in the same principle McKinnon is talking about. He doesn't work from the outside in like most classically trained actors, affecting a limp or trying on a wardrobe. He simply imagines himself as the character he's playing. Billy McBride and Billy Bob Thornton are made from the same raw materials, they share a bone structure, probably even the same DNA. But McBride is the version of Thornton who went through whatever McBride went through.

Thornton recognizes that this limits the roles he can play to some degree -- he's probably not going to act through prosthetic layers or adopt an exotic accent. That gives him the ability to be extraordinarily convincing in the roles he does play. Thornton always seems plausible, like he's not acting.

You see this when McBride flashes his venomous anger or his salty wit, and when he weighs the arguments the various women around him make. He's the rare actor who seems to do some of his best work listening, in the moments when the director might be tempted to cut away from his face. But somehow he magnetizes the camera, just as he magnetizes our attention.

People call his style naturalistic, but I'm not sure that's right. Naturalism depends on the accurate portrayal of detail, and tends to privilege the scientific process of discovery over anything inexplicable or supernatural. There's genuine mystery in what he does.

And I'd watch him in anything.



William Hurt starred with Kathleen Turner in the 1981 film noir Body Heat.

Style on 08/19/2018