A crisis era TV drama?

On Goliath

In his weighty book Crashed Adam Tooze argued that the financial crisis of 2008 never really ended. Instead, despite appearances, we have remained suspended in a form of economic crisis ever since. Over that period we can also throw in other convergent crises: environmental, political and public health. And simmering geopolitical tensions are in the mix too. In broad terms it has been a decade or so of, as Couze Venn identifed, overlapping and interconnected crises. The broad sentiments of this experience were always likely to seep through into cultural forms. It struck me that the TV drama Goliath, the fourth and final series of which is now available for streaming, seems to carry a particularly strong flavour of this crisis era.

As the show's title suggests, each series centres on an uneven battle against the powerful. The David and Goliath story is retold in the setting of crisis capitalism. The brilliant but self-destructive lawyer Billy McBride, whose office for the first three series was located in a cheap motel room and has moved only as far as a dimly-lit but slightly less dilapidated apartment in season 4, is the David figure standing up against the odds. This format is far less predictable than it sounds, and much more unsettling too. No one ever actually wins, at least not in any discernable way.

There are moments of seeming victory, but these are tempered by knock-on effects, by the weight of the context or by the sheer uncertainty of what that moment of victory might mean. These victories are never clear cut. The power of wealth often wields itself in ways that undermine Billy's uncanny talent for finding an unseen angle. He usually seems to have a plan, whilst the viewer is never sure if things are actually going according to it. Events rarely seem to be under control.

As with previous series, it isn’t always clear exactly what the circumstances are, at least not until they start to reveal themselves to the main protagonist. Even then, loose ends are left behind - there is a constant sense of a mess not quite cleared up. In the final series, for example, a mystery character keeps appearing, their meaning or purpose is left unsaid. And Billy's actions often create collateral damage that remains unresolved. This is not realism, it doesn’t retain mess or chaos in order to make things seem more believable, its tone is far too detached for that. Within this, there are perhaps three reasons why this shows seems so fitting for the current moment.

The first is distance. Always beyond arm’s length, the characters remain remote. There is a kind of social withdrawal in this distancing. This unknowability gives them an enigmatic quality whilst also serving to make them seem somehow obscure. The three main characters across the seasons - Billy, Patty and Brittany - seem to remain mysterious even where their backstories are partially filled-out. Even during their relative successes there is a constant sense of fragility and precarity that hounds these characters, fuelling their cynicism and serving to make them reserved. As a result, their motivations and emotions remain only as impressions.

Cagey and distant, a kind of inherent social distancing occurs in this closedness. Jaded by what they have witnessed, they are unknowable and untrusting, wary, weary and battle-worn. The sense of distance and of social unease is palpable across the series and becomes heightened rather than fizzling into warmth as the final episodes unfold. There is no hint of sentimentality creeping-in. At least not until the very final closing scene, which I won’t describe, but which itself maintains this distance if in a more brittle form.

At its centre, despite the narratives being pushed along by Billy’s drive for justice, it’s never really clear what his motivation is or what his notion of justice might be. It even leaves us wondering if his determination to damage those in power is about self-destruction rather justice. Its hard to tell, and that seems to be the point. The distance from this character leaves the viewer open to questioning his motives.

Alongside the distance, a sense of disorientation is a second defining feature of the show. The uncertainty and precarity of the times filter through. This disorientation and uncertainty aren’t background qualities, they are at the forefront. For a large part of season 3 Billy was unwittingly fed a hallucinogenic. The disorientation inevitably increased for those scenes, in which Billy very obviously couldn’t tell what was real, but this is something that works its way through the entire four seasons. Billy’s induced hallucinations served only to promote an existing sense of a lost reality. The fourth season is interspersed with dreamlike sequences and strange musical interludes. Within this fiction, you are never quite sure what is real and what is artificial or misleading. There is a disconcerting fragmentation to its form.

Billy himself often seems to feel this disorientation. The viewer too shares this experience, with the show following as Billy lurches around trying to formulate one of his plans in impossible and confusing circumstances. There is a sense of impending crisis in this disorientiation, a sense of being lost and of being unsure what is solid.

Finally, and I think this can be seen to tie particularly closely to the fallout from the financial crisis, is the show’s repeated focus on the need to challenge large organisations, institutions and big business, especially those who have twisted their power to suit their own interests. Perhaps this focus picks up on a tacit mistrust and a desire to upset those who might in some way have played a part in bringing about these wider problems. Again, this takes us back to the show’s title.

The first of the 32 episodes aired in October 2016, but the sentiment seems to have carried over from 2008 - perhaps reflecting the ongoing economic problems. Goliath is about corruption. It imagines a fantasy scenario in which the corruption of power can be upended by an unconventional and unpredictable small fish who is able to work the law to their advantage, unseating the big players. Given its core themes, there is a surprising faith in law that remains underneath the show’s more iconoclastic leanings. The law is the tool by which power can be transgressed.

Distance, disorientation and a scepticism toward power, the three properties of this show that perhaps reflect something of the moment. However the narratives of the show might be read, it is in its feel and tone that we might see this extended period of convergent crises finding its expression. Cutting through is a strong sense of perpetual uncertainty. The distance, disorientation and urge to disturb power work together to make this particular show seem somehow surreal whilst also being deeply invested in the wider moment. Goliath is far from realism, it doesn’t aim to describe or articulate the details of what is happening, neither is it a court room procedural or a social commentary. Instead it is impressionistic, it hints at the sentiments of the times, whatever we may make of them. In Goliath too, the crises seem unending. Perhaps Goliath is an archetypal piece of crisis era television.