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Review: 'The Lincoln Lawyer' a legal drama that's an antidote to the Dick Wolf-ification of the TV landscape

Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

It’s good to be Michael Connelly at the moment. The author’s Harry Bosch novels have been adapted into a very successful TV series, ongoing with “Bosch: Legacy,” which recently premiered on Amazon’s free streaming platform Freevee. And now his books about Mickey Haller, aka the Lincoln lawyer — a nickname derived from the character’s predilection for working out of his car; yep, a Lincoln — is getting the television treatment as well, this one for Netflix.

If Bosch is a noir bathed in the unrelenting Los Angeles sun, “The Lincoln Lawyer” is a different sort of LA story, one that’s snappier in approach and tone. There’s banter. And plucky music. But also plenty of solidly plotted storytelling and a character who takes his work seriously. Mickey may be sorting through some personal issues at the show’s outset — he’s been out of commission for a year or so after an accident left him hooked on pain meds — but he’s not world-weary so much as appropriately cynical about the criminal justice system. And he’s fueled by just enough ego that he’ll push through whatever self-loathing he might be feeling to get the job done. And boy does he have a few jobs at the moment. After a stint in rehab, suddenly he’s back in the game with a full caseload when he inherits the law practice of a fellow criminal defense attorney who’s been shot dead. That means Mickey has an entire roster of new clients to manage, while also trying to figure out who killed his colleague, while also juggling two ex-wives, a teenage daughter and assorted other distractions — like whether or not his own life might be in danger now that he’s taken over the dead guy’s clients.

Legal dramas have long been a reliable staple in TV and film, but with a few exceptions, they haven’t fared especially well in recent years. Who knows why. Hollywood can be fickle, but also cyclical. And yet “The Lincoln Lawyer” feels like it has real staying power. It’s probably no coincidence that it comes from David E. Kelley (who knows his way around a fictional courtroom, including “The Practice” among many others) and Ted Humphrey (whose credits include “The Good Wife”). Both writer-producers are seasoned hands when it comes to this genre and they’re not breaking new ground so much as providing an antidote to the overwhelming Dick Wolf-ification of the TV landscape. (All nine — yes, nine — of Wolfe’s procedurals were renewed for next season.) By contrast, the cops in “The Lincoln Lawyer” are not portrayed as heroes. In fact, the opposite. And that feels like a breath of fresh air, even if one of Mickey’s clients is as smug and odious as it gets, which feels about right, too. If it’s a choice between the Wolfs and Kelleys of the world, I’ll take Kelley every time.

Believe it or not, “The Lincoln Lawyer” doesn’t need an actor with tremendous charisma to pull off the title role. That’s not a critique of star Manuel Garcia-Rulfo so much as an observation. It’s a low-key and not especially memorable performance, but he’s not boring either. His Mickey is pleasantly mumbly, with a hangdog mien that’s often crosscut with a don’t-underestimate-me swagger. In casting Mexican native Garcia-Rulfo, the show subtly maintains a detail from the books, wherein Mickey’s mother is Mexican. The character is not one for office politics or law partner machinations, which is why he would never fit in at a larger firm. No, it’s just Mickey hanging out a shingle and working for himself. You wouldn’t look twice if you saw him on the street — or in a courtroom. He’s like one of a hundred other generically handsome middle-aged guys in a suit. But Mickey is smart, he has a conscience and he’s distrustful of the police, qualities that make him a rarity among TV shows aimed at a broader audience these days.

It’s best not to think of the 10-episode season in comparison to the 2011 Matthew McConaughey movie. Stylistically, the two have little in common. But this version (and my guess is there will be more seasons to come) remains a process story, and who doesn’t love a process story? Here, it’s the process of figuring things out: Who did what and why — and then putting a strategy in motion. Mickey is helped along by a close-knit crew that includes a biker-turned-private-eye named Cisco (Angus Sampson); Mickey’s delightful ex-wife Lorna (Becki Newton) who is also his office manager and biggest cheerleader; and Izzy (Jazz Raycole) as his driver and sounding board.

Why does Mickey need a driver? The reasons are convoluted now that he has a physical office that he inherited along with that caseload. With its dark wood-paneled walls and blinds on the windows, it’s a setting that says: This is where people roll up their sleeves and dig through paperwork. But Mickey says he thinks better when he’s in motion (and apparently doesn’t get carsick while reading in the back seat; teach me your ways, Mickey) and yes, he still owns a Lincoln in this adaptation. Actually, Lincolns plural. Has a garage full of them. The number of times we see the Lincoln logo framed just so suggests the car company may indeed have some kind of product placement deal in place. I mean, all you can do is chuckle; whatever pays the bills. Not sure how Mickey’s convertible and late-model SUVs didn’t get repo’ed during his year-plus bout with addiction and subsequent recovery when he presumably wasn’t earning his usual income. But apparently he was able to hang on to that fabulous house in the Hollywood Hills as well, which has a noticeably similar view of the city as that seen from the home of one Harry Bosch.

It’s a shame the two shows are on different streamers because the prospect of a crossover seems fun, even if they were to just bump into one another in the neighborhood. (Mickey and Harry are in fact paternal half brothers, which book readers will already know but will be news to anyone who has only encountered these characters in their screen incarnations.)

Mickey’s other ex-wife is also a frequent presence in his life. Played by Neve Campbell, she’s a district attorney named Maggie McPherson, nicknamed Maggie McFierce (ugh) which is one of those details that doesn’t exactly track; she’s fair-minded and wants to take down the bad guys and doesn’t really question the dysfunction of the system she’s working in, but no, she’s not fierce. That’s the thing about this show — it’s not that there aren’t mildly cringey elements to it, it’s that you’re willing to overlook them. Or at least, I am. Some people will watch “The Lincoln Lawyer” and think “No, absolutely not.” That may be you. But the great LisaGay Hamilton (one of Kelley’s alums from “The Practice”) shows up periodically as the presiding judge to supervise the transfer of Mickey’s cases and that in itself is reason enough to watch. And I like the subtle storyline threaded throughout of how sexual harassment can derail a person’s career, even when they’re still in law school.

For the moment, shows about crime (violent or otherwise) are mostly told from the point of view of law enforcement and prosecutors and it’s nice to see a series centered on a criminal defense attorney for a change. Mickey is neither righteous nor scummy, which seem to be the only two lawyer characterizations Hollywood has of late. Certainly, AMC’s “Better Call Saul” aims for something more narratively complex and cinematically ambitious, but despite also featuring attorneys at its center, it doesn’t really have the rhythms or a cockeyed sense of enjoyment that defines the legal drama as a genre. “Better Call Saul” wants to be something else. Something deeper. So does “The Good Fight” on Paramount+ (set to return with new episodes this summer). That’s fine. That’s great, actually. But “The Lincoln Lawyer” is a show that is unabashedly giving you another option: Our days are hard, and it’s OK to want TV to be easy. You don’t get more points in life if your viewing habits tend toward the prestige-ier side of the spectrum.

 

Is “The Lincoln Lawyer” bland? I dunno. Maybe? A little? I just don’t see that as a bad thing, because it’s also not fussy or overly cutesy (the further Kelley gets from his “Ally McBeal” era, the better). It avoids treating its characters as quirky confections, and instead treats them as adults you might actually meet in the real world. A few weeks ago I wrote a column speculating that Netflix may be headed in more of this direction, picking up where basic cable’s blues skies programming left off. That doesn’t guarantee anything, quality-wise; shows aiming for a lighter touch can be just as dreadful as anything else. (“Emily in Paris” anyone?)

But “The Lincoln Lawyer” doesn’t suffer from that. It’s pretty good and frequently satisfying. That’s more than I can say about a lot of television.

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“THE LINCOLN LAWYER”

3 stars (out of 4)

How to watch: On Netflix

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