A Golden Oldie

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Book/film List / Heroes / Legal Fictions

The first season of Amazon’s Goliath grabs you from start to finish. Billy Bob Thorton is dynamite as Billy McBride, a failed lawyer trying to bring down a vicious corporation; and perennial Emmy winner David E. Kelly has lost none of his ability to write sizzling dialogue. https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/goliath/

Still I can’t deny that Thornton’s character bears a strong resemblance to Paul Newman in The Verdict, a down-and- out lawyer with alcohol and marital problems. And the ending echoes the final scene in Michael Clayton, another film where an underdog lawyer prevails. Let’s face it; the “underdog hero bests powerful villain” plot has been with us forever. That’s why even though the show is popular with viewers, 82 on Rotten Tomatoes, I fear some of you may pass on it because of its well-worn plot.

Kelley is not hiding the fact that he is re-telling an old story; the show’s title is “Goliath.” Still we should ask ourselves whether we should fault him for relying on such an unoriginal plot.I don’t think so; no matter how many times we see it, the “David versus Goliath” story raises a question that always intrigues us—-how can a good person cope in a world that so often rewards power over virtue?

The answer is we tell ourselves stories where a virtuous underdog hero vanquishes a powerful villain. This may sound like retreating into a fantasy world, but not necessarily to reside there permanently. Sometimes a little fantasy can do us a world of good.

If you watch a Superman movie and then jump off a tall building in an attempt to fly, the consequences will be disappointing. But less extreme escapes from reality can prove to be quite salubrious. At a minimum the “Goliath” plot reminds us that the most powerful do not always win. This is not only a pleasant thought, but also a true fact. Underdogs do sometimes win. Think of Donald Trump. Whatever you think of his virtue, he was an underdog. This realization that underdogs sometimes win may lead us to model ourselves on our own underdog heroes and start taking a more active role in our own lives.

Some of us may even become heroes ourselves. Consider the case of Edward Snowden. Snowden reminds me not so much of Billy McBride (or Donald Trump) as Jefferson Smith, the underdog hero in Frank Capra’s classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Jeff is an earnest scoutmaster who suddenly finds himself appointed to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate. He soon discovers that he is really there as a stooge fronting for an evil political cabal planning a dam that will ruin a pristine river. Jeff decides to fight back. He loses his political innocence, but gains a lot of confidence in discovering he has talents he was unaware of. Jeff eventually conquers his Goliath.

We don’t know whether Edward Snowden ever saw Mr Smith. Certainly he was exposed to a lot of underdog hero narratives growing up in America in the late 20th Century. Snowden joined the U.S. Army Special Forces hoping to fight in Iraq to help the Iraqis to escape from oppression. When a serious injury during training ended his dream of fighting for Iraqi freedom, Snowden decided to serve his country as a computer expert at the CIA. Like Jeff Smith, Snowden discovered that his government was engaged in unsavory activities and lying about them. And, also like Smith, he decided to fight back.

The Golden Oldie finds life in a new telling, and the new version inspires viewers, some of whom may even become real life heroes. So enjoy Goliath , but don’t think of it as a guilty pleasure; it just might be the whisper in your ear that reminds you that maybe you too can be a little bit more the person you always wanted to be. And these are times that call for heroes.


  1. Dede Donovan says

    Nice piece, John. I’ve spent the past week moaning “why do the good guys always finish last?’, so it is nice to come across a reminder that there are classic scenarios (hopefully not fantasies) where they come in first.


  2. Anthropological theory offers two corollaries, one from legal anthropology, the other from the anthropology of sports. Legal anthro posits that a system that advertises itself as fair, must occasionally be fair – a point stressed by Thompson in his history of English law.
    The anthro of sports analogy is a bit more complicated: The sports fan is rewarded inversely to the likelihood that his/her team will win. A heavy favorite (the old time Yankees, e.g.), by this theorem provides little, but wins often, while a heavy underdog (the Cubs before this year!) offers great reward, since victory is unexpected. This is what sustains a fan’s devotion.
    Each of these perspectives helps explain the perpetual interest in the “David v. Goliath” tale that we seem never to tire of.


    • Very interesting. I think that maybe both views point to the same truth; a functional legal system cannot allow the powerful to always win and that’s why we can sometimes rejoice in a underdog victory. But that begs the question of why we don’t try to construct a a legal system that is not biased towards the powerful. I would think the ethical principle behind democracy would be that every individual should have an equal chance to succeed.


      • E.P. Thompson’s (Marxist) answer is that the system you envision will be elusive so long as those in control of the means of production, including the ideological production of a system that “advertises itself as fair,” remain in power.


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