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There Will Never Be Another Paul T. Goldman

The Peacock docudrama is the result of a once-in-a-lifetime creative experiment.
  • Paul T. Goldman in Paul T. Goldman (Photo: Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock)
    Paul T. Goldman in Paul T. Goldman (Photo: Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock)

    “I’m not like other people,” Paul T. Goldman says in the final episode of the Peacock series of the same name. And he’s absolutely right. In a time where originality is harder and harder to come by, everything about Goldman, from the way he purses his lips to his dogged determination to the supposed life he’s led up until now, is unlike anyone else. That’s part of what makes director Jason Woliner’s experimental hybrid docuseries, Paul T. Goldman, so compelling. It’s also what makes the show impossible to replicate.

    Paul T. Goldman the man is actually Paul Finkelman, a mild-mannered insurance salesman who changed his name to pen a self-published book called Duplicity based on the supposed nefarious exploits of his ex-wife. Paul T. Goldman the TV series is part documentary about Goldman himself and the making of a show based on his book (he also wrote the screenplay), and part scenes from the actual show. Goldman stars as himself in those scenes alongside well-known actors like Melinda McGraw, Dennis Haysbert, Rosanna Arquette, and Frank Grillo.

    Woliner directs both of these parts, and each episode in the six-part series dives a little deeper into how much of the tale Goldman is weaving about his ex-wife’s double life in an international sex trafficking ring is actually true. But still, it’s so much more than that, an experience that’s nearly impossible to explain, one that you just have to dive in and see.

    That difficulty is likely part of why it took the show so long to see the light of day. Production on the series first started in 2012 when Goldman went on a Twitter spree tagging every director, producer, and celebrity he could think of. Woliner, who at the time was best known for directing episodes of Human Giant and Parks and Recreation, tweeted back. Over the course of the next 10 years, much of which is documented in the show, Woliner spent time with Goldman, first filming interviews and documentary footage, then eventually bringing Goldman’s script to life. It wasn’t until 2022, after Woliner gained notoriety as the director of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, that the show was picked up by Peacock.

    Even though Woliner was well into filming Paul T. Goldman when he got the Borat gig, he certainly picked up some tips from Sacha Baron Cohen. Da Ali G Show, the series that birthed the character of Borat, started on Channel 4 in the UK in 2000 and found a home on HBO from 2003-2004. Cohen would interview both strangers on the street and well-known cultural and political figures in character either as “street smart” hip-hop enthusiast Ali G, Kazakhstani reporter Borat, or Austrian fashion expert Brüno, resulting in a mix of enlightening and cringeworthy interactions. But because Cohen is in character, it brings a different energy to the end result. Already there’s an air of trickery surrounding the exchanges, and Cohen is being deliberately over-the-top in order to elicit a specific reaction instead of just sitting back and seeing what happens.

    Moreso Paul T. Goldman shares DNA with a newer genre of experimental reality show and documentary making seen in series like How to With John Wilson, The Rehearsal, and Nathan For You (of which Woliner directed two episodes). It’s already a tricky genre to master, requiring patience and an exceptionally good understanding of storytelling to film nonstop with an uncontrollable factor — in all cases, that factor being the free will and unpredictability of other human beings — and piece it all together into something that not only makes sense but has a thematic arc. And more specifically with How to With John Wilson, it depends on the filmmaker being nearly nonexistent in the narrative itself, a tactic that Woliner takes on in Paul T. Goldman until Goldman forces him into it.

    The recent HBO documentary This Place Rules shows a less successful attempt at this style. Much like John Wilson, Andrew Callaghan just shows up at random events to interview people and tries to delve further into the story and string together a narrative from there. The main event just happens to be the insurrection on January 6, 2021, which almost provides too much structure and weight to the story. Throughout scenes of interviewing both sides of protests and political rallies, Callaghan interjects himself in unnatural ways, narrating from a black box theater in a director’s chair. The organic magic and sense that anything can happen next is gone, and the story would have been better served if presented as a more traditional documentary.

    When the entirety of that filming involves shooting one central subject who is not a reliable narrator, the task becomes more difficult and therefore that much more impressive if it’s pulled off. And over a decade, the lines between subject and creator become more and more blurred as do the ethical and moral implications of presenting someone else’s life story, highs and lows, as a means of entertainment. At any moment, Goldman could have pulled the plug, and all of Woliner’s progress could have been for nothing. Goldman could have turned violent; there could have been legal ramifications for the claims he made; the story itself when played out on screen could have simply been boring.

    Replicating successful styles and themes of television is nothing new. Something like The Office, for example, borrowed its entire premise from a British sitcom, and its success in the United States led to a string of workplace comedies, single-cam sitcoms, and mockumentary-style shows that have been going strong ever since. It’s an easy mold that can fit many different kinds of stories — shows like Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, and, most recently, Abbott Elementary, prove that it’s a sustainable way to continue making comedies.

    But Paul T. Goldman is a lightning in a bottle phenomenon that can’t (and really shouldn’t) be done again. The model itself isn’t suited for a neat outline that others can easily follow. If a creator does happen to follow the general beats, the authenticity is gone. When it comes to execution, how do you find the next Paul Finkelman? There will always be compelling, everyday folks who might make a worthy subject, but are they putting on an act to entice the possibility of fame? How many directors will take advantage of eccentric folks to make them the butt of the joke? How tenable is it really to stick around for 10 years as Woliner did hoping that the end result is even watchable?

    Another unique moment comes in the final episode of the series when a conversation between Woliner and Goldman is filmed after the series premiere. It was the first time Goldman saw how Woliner had pieced together the parts of their separate visions, one that doesn’t always show Goldman in the best light. “This is not the original show that I envisioned based on my book,” Goldman says. “I’m okay with it because it’s just amazing to see your life up on the screen, even if it’s not flattering.” It feels unlikely that any future attempts would present an ending that perfect. Instead of trying to top it, filmmakers should allow Paul T. Goldman to exist as the singular wonder it is.

    Paul T. Goldman is now streaming in its entirety on Peacock.

    Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R. 

    TOPICS: Paul T. Goldman, Peacock, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, How To with John Wilson, Nathan for You, The Rehearsal, Jason Woliner