Peacock‘s Paul T. Goldman starts off innocently enough. We learn that Paul T. Goldman is a man on a mission. After marrying his second wife (the show calls) Audrey, he soon learns that she is not only conning him, but apart of a much larger conspiracy. Paul pens a book called Duplicity about his incredible journey from “wimp to warrior,” uncovering the truth about Audrey’s connection to a nefarious sex trafficking ring, and bringing the culprits to justice. Understandably, he wants to share this wild true tale and sets about on a journey to bring his life story to the screen. Nathan For You and Borat Subsequent Movie Film director Jason Woliner jumps on board, seeing a chance to explore the hazy, hilarious gaps between fact and fiction.
So far, so good. Paul T. Goldman is just the latest entry in an emerging new genre of “docu-comedy” that includes Woliner’s past projects and Nathan Fielder’s recent masterpiece The Rehearsal. However, Paul T. Goldman “Chapter 4: The Trial” is where things get decidedly dark. From the jump, the show’s eponymous subject, narrator, and maestro has been depicted as a quirky naif whose greatest sin is maybe not reading social cues. (Especially as it pertains to romance.) In Episode 4, however, Paul’s lies catch up with him. His nonfiction story is blown to bits as the wilder aspects of Audrey’s crimes are borne out to be false. We learn no arrests have been made. Paul has fabricated huge swaths of his story. Worse, he pens an ending to his “true” story that allows him to literally murder Audrey and her love. All the while, Paul in the present, “real” documentary refuses to broach any concept of empathy or emotional vulnerability.
Because Paul T. Goldman is a project that asks you to enter Paul’s perspective, it was here that I began feeling extremely disturbed. Instead of just following a quirky character through a bizarre chain of true crime events, we were allowing a deeply embittered man to act out his most aggressively cruel fantasies. Of course, like a dummie, I should have seen this twist coming.
The first three episodes of Paul T. Goldman were released on Peacock in a batch last week, which meant I binged them as a three-act story. After Episode 1, I was 100% in Paul’s thrall. Did I find him odd? Sure. More importantly, it was clear from his tale of proposing to a woman after three months and agreeing to a “part-time” marriage that he was maybe not the brightest bulb on the Lite-Brite display. Still, his enthusiasm for the project, his love for his son, and his “oh wow” demeanor put me on his side. An idiot who says “You can laugh at me! I laugh at me!” is pretty darn endearing.
Then, Paul T. Goldman Episode 2 rolled. Sure, I was stunned that he revealed he met his first wife through a mail-order Russian bride scheme, but this was Paul. The show had already established he’s not the best at romance, social cues, or normie behavior. His initial depiction of his first marriage led you to believe he was exploited by a wannabe medicine student who used his unabashed dreams of true love to secure a green card. But then we meet Paul’s actual first wife Galina. She and their now-teen son Johnny watch as Paul auditions actresses to play the fictional version of Galina, “Talia.”
When Galina suggests that perhaps the couple’s breakup scene should be played more naturally — and not wholly as Paul’s aggrieved memory of the event — she is roped in to dramatically recreate her own divorce from Paul…in front of their real life son. Putting aside the obvious awfulness of subjecting your kid to this, it’s clear from Galina’s portrayal of events, her tender recollections of Paul in confessional, and the fact that she’s still in his life that she’s not a one dimensional villain. From this fault line, tremors ripple through Paul’s accounts of reality, disrupting the solid ground of his each and every claim.
But in Paul T. Goldman Episode 4, it gets even darker. It becomes more and more apparent that the basis of most of Paul’s vast conspiracy theories come from a charismatic pet psychic and his own imagination. Upset that the FBI has discounted his “evidence,” Paul writes his vicious fantasy of what should happen to ex-wife Audrey and her lover Royce Rocco. Woliner questions Paul about this, seemingly more interested in why he shied away from a more empathetic (or just plain real) ending. Paul emphatically says it is more important to be a sociopath than a loser. A warrior over a wimp.
Now it’s obvious that Paul was a mark. He was duped by Audrey, who was both carrying out an affair and attempting to extort Paul out of money. However it seems that Paul’s shame of being wronged has led him down a twisted path to transform Audrey and her lover into supervillains on a scale. In his quest to not be such a pathetic victim, Paul has embraced the trappings of a villain. No peace can be found on this path, but maybe, through the work of Woliner and company, we get something akin to art.