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Law and Crime

'Paul T. Goldman' Shows the Strengths of Case Studies

The bizarre Peacock series is an unintentional case study of an unusual man.

Key points

  • "Paul T. Goldman" tells the story of a man who divorced his wife after he believed she was running a prostitution ring.
  • The series, which includes dramatizations and interviews, acts like a case study of Paul Goldman, the man at the center of it.
  • While case studies have limitations, researchers have argued for their unique strengths, some of which are on display in "Paul T. Goldman."
Source: Peacock
A scene from "Paul T. Goldman."
Source: Peacock

If you want to make your anecdote sound more official, call it a case study.

Case studies are generally viewed as second-tier evidence in science and medicine due to their pretty obvious limitations. No matter how closely you study someone, you can’t really be sure what caused their symptoms or behavior without comparing them systematically to someone else.

I couldn’t help but think about this as I watched Paul T. Goldman, Peacock’s bizarre, genre-defying, sort-of true crime series that released the last of its six episodes last month. The series centers around a man named Paul Goldman who was conned into a sham marriage and then filed for divorce after he became convinced that his wife was secretly running a prostitution ring. The series was directed by Jason Woliner (who directed Borat Subsequent Moviefilm), who makes multiple appearances throughout. Pretty early on, it becomes clear that Woliner was far less interested in telling Goldman’s story of betrayal than in understanding who this strange, sometimes endearing, sometimes frustrating, sometimes lacking in self-awareness man was.

In other words, whether he intended to or not, Woliner created a fascinating, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and surprisingly addictive case study of the mind of Paul Goldman.

Why was this man seemingly so gullible and so easily conned—by his ex-wife, by a psychic, by an unscrupulous private investigator? It’s easy enough to speculate, but like with all case studies, there’s not enough there to say for sure.

But that doesn’t mean Paul T. Goldman doesn’t offer a rich psychological study. In Helen Simons’s 2009 book Case Study Research in Practice, Simons offers a handful of unique strengths of case studies, several of which are on full display in Paul T. Goldman.

Benefit 1: Case studies aren’t constrained by a single method

Ostensibly, Paul T. Goldman is a true crime series, documenting the period of Goldman’s life in which he left his wife and he uncovered her prostitution ring. But the show also includes dramatized scenes from Goldman’s life, starring Goldman, shot from the screenplay that Goldman wrote about his life. It’s also partly investigative, treating Goldman as an unreliable narrator who may not have all the facts straight. And the series acts as its own making-of documentary with frequent behind-the-scenes footage of Woliner interacting with Goldman.

Seeing these scenes cut together produces the effect of seeing Goldman through his own eyes (how he portrays himself in the screenplay) and then through others’ eyes (as he’s seen in candid moments between takes), giving a more complete impression of him.

Benefit 2: Case studies can explore contested viewpoints

The series includes interviews with some of the people involved in Goldman’s story, including those who don’t completely agree with his version of the facts. In some cases, the details in these interviews significantly change the story.

Benefit 3: Case studies can include participants in the research process

Aside from providing the screenplay and the story rights for the series, Goldman becomes intimately involved in the series, insisting on playing himself in the movie about his life, assisting with the casting process, and hounding Woliner when efforts to sell the series stagnate. Goldman was hardly an uninvolved bystander in the process.

Paul T. Goldman isn’t a true case study

Paul T. Goldman was created as entertainment, not research. But it does a good job illustrating both the strengths and weaknesses of case study research. Like case studies, on one hand, the series provides a deep dive into Goldman, his life, how he thinks, his strange story, and the various people that fell into his orbit over the years; on the other hand, without much to compare with, it’s difficult to know if there are any generalizable lessons to be drawn from Goldman’s story.

But as entertainment, Paul T. Goldman is a success.

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