The Peacock true crime/behind the scenes/comedy of discomfort compels and repels, frequently in equal measure.
Paul T. Goldman isn’t funny, per se. Like its titular lead subject (real name Paul Finkelman), there’s an awkwardness that will leave all but the least sympathetically embarrassed feeling itchy. It is frequently strange. It’s perplexingly over the top and all over the place. It rings out laughs, but most are distinctively of the “too awkward to do anything but giggle” variety. So, no, not especially funny.
Given the show’s pedigree, created and directed by Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’s director Jason Woliner and produced by Seth Rogen, this tone can’t be entirely surprising. Woliner has experience with these mixtures of documentary and fiction with Borat as well as Jon Benjamin Has a Van and Nathan for You. Rogen, meanwhile, has seemingly been collecting curiosities recently, returning to bizarre real-life stories and characters in works like The Disaster Artist and Pam and Tommy. Even with those points of comparison, though, Paul T. Goldman stands out in its alchemy of the bizarre and discomfiting.
But, much like Goldman himself often does, this review is getting ahead of itself.
Peacock has requested many details of the story be embargoed in order to not give away many of the ways this story evolves and twists into itself throughout the five episodes provided to critics. (They did not include the sixth and final for this review.) In broad strokes, however, Paul T. Goldman is about the dissolution of Goldman’s second marriage and how he reacted to it.
After meeting “Audrey Munson” (Melinda McGraw)—several characters in the series are given fake names, no doubt for legal reasons—Goldman quickly falls in love. As he says multiple times, she’s the only woman he meets whose pictures match her actual appearance. Additionally, she’s a single parent like himself and seems to hold many of his values in common, including her desire to be a stay-at-home mom. Unfortunately, red flags abound. In retrospect, Goldman acknowledges them but, back then, either didn’t notice or pushed forward despite them. They’re soon married, despite her disappearing for half the week every week, supposedly to take care of a sick relative.
Eventually, even Paul can’t ignore the scams and seeks to divorce her. The discovery for their divorce trial reveals even further questionable activities on her part. Before long, Goldman becomes convinced she’s not only a “bad” wife and lowkey scam artist but that she might be a part of a vast criminal conspiracy.
[Paul T. Goldman] certainly makes for an interesting viewing experience, but not exactly a satisfying or especially fair one.
Goldman captured all of this in his 2009 book Duplicity (originally titled Double Wife, Double Life, which manages to both much better and imply he’s the one living a double life). Then he proceeded to use Twitter to publicize the book and attempt to get it turned into a film. In time, he convinced Woliner to get on board.
The series exists on three levels. First is the re-enactment of Goldman’s relationship with “Munson” and subsequent divorce. Then there’s the behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Paul T. Goldman. The final layer is the real-time fact-checking in which Woliner and others get Goldman to clarify and confess to the accuracy of his personal narrative. The closest the show gets to genuine gags is stacking Goldman (and occasionally other characters) relating a piece of dialogue or story over and over, within the fictional world of the series, in a behind-the-scenes moment, and again to camera to clarify some aspect of it to Woliner.
As the story progresses, more complications and layers are added, further muddying the reality of anything the audience has seen or will see. What starts as an uncomfortable exercise in true crime and possible personal delusion evolves into something even thornier. By the climax of episode five, one has to seriously consider the reality that Goldman may be conning the audience (and the cast and crew) as much as “Munson” conned him. If not more.
The alternate possibility is Goldman is every bit as guileless as he initially seems. A rube guilty of ego, perhaps, but with a massive streak of gullibility. If that interpretation is correct, it changes the entire valence of the story. It casts Woliner and the content-making machine as villains exploiting a silly man who is only guilty of getting a little too high on his own supply. It’s the difference between capturing a scammer spinning his grift as hard and as long as he can and a fool trying desperately to keep dancing so the spotlight doesn’t leave him. Neither makes for an especially comforting viewing experience, but the latter certainly leaves the viewer feeling much grosser.
With one episode left, it is entirely possible that dichotomy will be satisfyingly resolved. More likely, however, is that it will leave everyone in that queasy ambiguity. That certainly makes for an interesting viewing experience, but not exactly a satisfying or especially fair one.
How real is Paul T. Goldman? The series Paul T. Goldman seems happy to ask, but, so far, unprepared to truly answer.
Paul T. Goldman tells his possibly true story beginning January 1 on Peacock with the first three episodes.