David E. Kelley knows a thing or two about making legal dramas. Over the years, the prolific producer has created such TV staples as The Practice, Ally McBeal, and Boston Legal, which ended in 2008.
Goliath, his new Amazon original series starring Billy Bob Thornton, marks Kelley’s first return to television since then — and his first foray into the streaming universe. How does someone whose long career has been synonymous with network television feel about making the move to an online platform? Pretty great. We spoke with Kelley about the creative freedom of streaming, the show’s origins (he calls it “Rocky in a courtroom”), and casting Billy Bob Thornton.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is your first show in quite some time. What’s the show’s backstory — how did it all come about?
DAVID E. KELLEY: I suppose if we’re going to go way, way back to the beginning. Jonathan Shapiro, who co-created it and co-wrote the pilot with me, we were both on The Practice, and we were always frustrated that in these closed contained episodes we really had to take such shortcuts with the depiction of a trial. You know something would happen at five minutes past the hour, or 10 minutes before the hour, and then you’d be into closing arguments. We always said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to really break down the pieces of a lawsuit?’ We wanted to reveal how much of the evolution of a lawsuit has nothing to do with the legal. It’s the personalities. It’s the politics. It’s the forum depending on which judge you get. We like to assume it’s this wonderful legal meritocracy, but in reality, it’s the sum total of so many arbitrary factors, and so that’s kind of where we started.
So, we continued to talk about it over the years, and over the years, the evolution of law and law firms changed themselves. Specifically, we now have Big Law. I think that there are conservatively speaking over 20 law firms that make over a billion dollars a year, though it’s probably closer to 30 law firms.
Compare that with the dearth of the solo practice or the extinction of the solo practitioner — those animals just have no place to thrive in the forest. And the idea now of a lone soldier tilting a window against the big law firm, it’s just difficult to fathom in this day and age.
And Billy Bob Thornton’s character, Billy McBride, is that animal.
Exactly. The other thing is, most cases never get to a jury anymore. In federal court, I think it’s less than 1 percent of all cases get to a jury, and state court might be a little higher but not much. What’s interesting about that is the justice is so bought and paid for in every step of the way, and it’s also largely dependent on you having the resources to stick it out, because if you don’t have the money to run the race, then you’re not going to finish the race, and you’re certainly not going to win. But the one place where democracy, if you will, and truth still have a modicum of a shot is if you can get in front of a jury.
So the show aims to shine a light on our legal process?
That’s really the essence of the show. It’s a little bit like Rocky in a courtroom. You’ve got this guy who’s barely a contender, and he keeps getting knocked down by an overwhelming favorite but keeps getting up. And if he can get to those 12 people on the box, that’s the one place where he actually has a chance. So that’s the journey that we take our broken-down, damaged character on, which is also the second part of the story — how damaged and dysfunctional lawyers have become in this day age. The depression rate is off the charts. The drinking problem is exponentially more severe than it was, say, 20 years ago.
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How did you land on Billy Bob Thornton to play your Rocky?
It’s great casting because he has such a humanity and a complicated aura that he brings to the table. This is not a character that we’re asking the audience to necessarily like. I do believe that he’ll have favorability ratings that compare with our current presidential candidates with some of our audience members. [Laughs]
I think the math on him at the end of the day is that there’s more good than bad and more people will be rooting for him. People will be rooting for him because the other guy’s worse. But that’s not to say that people will be wholeheartedly embracing this character.
That’s also new for me, because I’ve grown up in the network world where there’s a burden on making your protagonist ultimately redeeming if not likable. My characters through the years have certainly all been flawed, but you can pretty safely declare at the end of the day that they’re more heroic than not. As for Billy McBride, I think it’s going to be different opinions from different viewers depending on their standpoint.
How else has the move to streaming freed you up creatively? Was the difference that big?
I think we don’t feel the burden to be whamming the obvious over the head with high-octane action pieces to keep viewers’ attention. They’re a little more patient, and I think the softer, more emotional beats have a tendency or have a chance to play a little bit better, so we’ve enjoyed that freedom. Certainly, the content has been good, and we’re not subject to some of the commercial restraints that can amount censorship sometimes. We’ve all enjoyed it so far.
Given that your resume includes a very deep bench of successful legal dramas, how do you think this one will stand out from the rest for viewers?
It’s certainly not procedural. All my series I think have been relatively character based. This one maybe even more so, and I would also say what distinguishes it is law is so different today than it was when I did The Practice and even Boston Legal. It’s changed for a lot of the reasons that we spoke about. Laws become very behemoth — it’s the haves versus the have-nots.