The Pitch: “In 2012, a man named Paul T. Goldman tweeted at me,” is how director Jason Woliner (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Nathan for You) begins a note to the press about his new Peacock series. “He said that he had an incredible story to tell and had written a book – and a screenplay – about it. He asked for my help bringing it to the screen.”
Ten years later, Woliner has done exactly that — though the form this story has taken probably wasn’t what Paul T. Goldman anticipated. Instead, the series is less a shocking tale of sex and crime and more a fascinating portrait of a man and his ambitions: his desire for fame, for revenge, or maybe just being seen. And seen he is, through a lens that is alternately dark, strange, bizarre, and, more often than not, very funny.
Pieces of a Man: In trying to explain Paul T. Goldman, let’s start with the footage that makes up the episodes, a blend of reality and fiction that leans into Woliner’s background in experimental comedy projects. Each episode features direct interviews with Goldman about his life, specifically the circumstances which led him to realize that he was being scammed by his second wife (known as Audrey for the sake of the series; her real name is bleeped out for legal reasons) — a revelation which unlocked a whole dark web of additional secrets.
But then we also see Goldman’s version of these events through dramatic scenes that are directed by Woliner but written by and starring Goldman himself — and the series frequently ducks out of those moments of constructed narrative to reveal what’s happening behind the scenes of their making.
For the reenactments, Woliner has accumulated an impressive cast that includes Frank Grillo, Rosanna Arquette, W. Earl Brown, Melinda McGraw, and Dennis Haysbert, and some of the most electric moments early in the series are found in watching their interactions with Goldman between takes. For on a surface level, Goldman comes off as “a middle-aged, nebbishy guy” (to use Woliner’s description from the author’s note), someone you might have no recollection of waiting in line behind at the bank. But his friendly charm warms up his more famous co-stars incredibly quickly, especially the women.
And that’s notable because Goldman’s approach to writing the female characters featured in his story is… Lacking in nuance, is one way of putting it. While the series reveals that he has a pretty deep inner life, Goldman’s imagination has limits, mostly defined by the sort of storylines you’d find in direct-to-home-video erotic thrillers. And as Goldman’s relationships with women haven’t been the greatest in real life, there’s more than a little vengeance in his writing as a result — something which the show does not flinch away from putting on screen, enhancing the complicated portrait of a man at the center of this piece.
Putting the “True?” Into True Crime: This project has literally been in the works for 10 years now, something made clear as you watch all the different types of footage Woliner has accumulated in that time. But one of the show’s most impressive attributes is how the editing weaves together all of the above elements, along with talking head interviews and found footage, to create a coherent narrative.
The show’s opening credits deliberately invoke the style of true crime docu-series like Making a Murderer and Conversations With A Killer – The Ted Bundy Tapes, and leaning on those dramatic tropes goes a long way towards helping to package the story’s more bizarre twists. How real any of it is, of course, is unclear, and becomes more clear as the story progresses. But not being sure what’s fact and what’s fiction is a very 2022 state of being, and only ensures that Goldman feels like an authentic product of its era.
The Verdict: The wild thing about Paul T. Goldman is this — critics were sent the first five episodes for review, but as of a few weeks ago the final episode was not yet complete. I know this because I went to the premiere in Los Angeles earlier this month, at which cameras were present to film the star-studded audience as well as the real-life Goldman himself. (I am bracing myself for the reality that when I watch the finale, I may be visible in that footage.)
Incorporating the show’s actual premiere into the season finale only amplifies Paul T. Goldman‘s self-reflexive nature, and as a result it’s hard to get a sense of the full picture being painted at this point. But what can be said is that Woliner’s aim isn’t to deliberately prank Goldman; instead, what the series represents is the televisual equivalent to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. By engaging with Goldman, and helping him “tell his story,” Woliner, his collaborators, and even the audience are inevitably drawn into the experience; it’s one man’s tale, but by observing it, we’re all somehow a part of it.
Is Goldman brave or naive, in letting Woliner put him in the spotlight the way he has? The answer is arguably both, as some people are certainly going to watch this show and come away thinking he’s annoying, or a misogynist, or not that bright. But while the potential for schadenfreude is potent, like him or hate him there’s something to be admired in Goldman’s fearlessness.
And, to go back to where things began, it was Goldman himself who reached out to Woliner.
He literally asked for it.
Where to Watch: The first three episodes of Paul T. Goldman premiere January 1st. Subsequent episodes drop weekly on Sundays.