BINGE-R #22: Atlanta + Goliath
Streaming Service: SBS on Demand
Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming
Whether it starts with a lackadaisical buzz or rears up with unadorned contempt, Atlanta is a comic drama that refuses to toe the line. The subversive humour sits up hard against everyday failings and the show has such masterful changes of mood – a non-sequitur to disrupt the tension, or an unexplained drop into confrontational menace – that it manages to not only be humourous and unsettling, but to twist each quality to serve the other. “Life itself is but a series of close calls,” one character observes, and the fine margins involved are fraught and funny.
The show’s creator, Donald Glover – a hyphenate from television (Community), movies (The Martian), and hip-hop (Childish Gambino) – uses specific detail to capture a casually anthropological depiction of his hometown. His Earn is smart but so busted down that his parents won’t let him in their house and ex-girlfriend, Vanessa (Zazie Beetz), with who he has a baby daughter, needs rent if he’s going to inveigle his way into her home. His latest plan is to manage his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), who has made a name for himself as local rapper Paper Boi.
Alfred and Paper Boi are two distinct personas, and Atlanta convincingly demonstrates how a young black man in America has to play multiple roles, often to the point of denying who he actually is. After Earn is arrested for the first time, much of the second episode is set in a police precinct’s waiting room for those being charged, an experience that has no centre of gravity. You start to hear the stoner observations of Paper Boi’s eccentric sidekick, Darius (Keith Stanfield), as the voice of reason, while director Hiro Muri, who shoots most of the season, creates a visual identity with coolly observed takes.
Atlanta gets more formally playful as it takes shape. There’s an episode involving a take on Justin Bieber that’s perfectly judged, while a TV panel show satire involving Paper Boi furthers the ideas on identity. Just when you think Vanessa is only going to be a reproachful reminder for Earn of his shortfalls, she gets an episode of her own involving an old friend with enhanced circumstances. The lens you see her through changes focus, and that keeps happening throughout this inspired series. Atlanta’s many possibilities are richly realised.
>> Bonus Binge: Community, the comedy series whose ensemble cast included Donald Glover, had an altogether loopier, obtuse brand of humour, but it remains an inspired takedown of the sitcom. Stan has all six seasons streaming, but for reasons too involved to explain here skip the fourth.
Streaming Service: Amazon Prime Video
Availability: All eight episodes now streaming
Amazon’s legal thriller is full of first-rate American actors playing juicy parts: Billy Bob Thornton is a former courtroom great downed by bad fortune and booze who pulls himself together to take on an arms manufacturer, Nina Arianda is the scrappy small-time attorney who gets him involved, and William Hurt plays his former business partner, a disfigured recluse who runs the firm they co-founded and defends the multinational. I could go on – Olivia Thirlby, Maria Bello, Molly Parker and Harold Perrineau also feature – but what’s missing is a compelling show for them to star in.
Goliath’s lineage is recognisable, with Thornton’s Billy McBride recalling Paul Newman’s Frank Galvin in Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict. The initial twists of the case, a suit designed to find out what really killed a scientist who supposedly committed suicide, are contrasted with Billy’s soon romantic relationship with his client, Rachel Kennedy (Ever Carradine), the dead man’s sister. The courtroom scenes are matched with a conspiracy outside, which begins with harassment and soon escalates to a hit and run, but the story’s mechanics are like a series of cogs that never fully turn.
Billy, with his barroom breakfasts and Santa Monica motel suite, does inadvertently suggest Thornton’s derelict Bad Santa persona, but the actor quickly establishes a flinty edge and unscrupulous anger that makes his litigator readily watchable. A handful of ostentatious crane shots in the first episode typify the show’s tendency to overreach, and as much as you can soak in the diverse cast’s ability to create a knotty dynamic, Goliath ultimately gets by on the comfort of familiarity. It needs to be more than reassuring.
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