It’s good to be Michael Connelly right now. The author’s Harry Bosch novels have been adapted into a hugely successful, ongoing television series with “Bosch: Legacy,” which recently premiered on Amazon’s free streaming platform, Freevee. And now his books on Mickey Haller, aka Lincoln’s Lawyer – a nickname derived from the character’s predilection for working in his car; yes, a Lincoln – also gets the TV treatment, this one for Netflix.
If Bosch is a Negro bathed in the relentless LA sun, “The Lincoln Lawyer” is a different kind of LA story, one more lively in its approach and tone. There are jokes. And brave music. But also a lot of solidly plotted narrative and a character who takes his job seriously. Mickey may be dealing with some personal issues at the start of the series — he’s been out of action for about a year after an accident left him addicted to painkillers — but he’s not world-weary as much as cynical about the criminal justice system. And he’s powered by just enough ego that he can overcome whatever self-hatred he might feel to get the job done. And boy does he have a few jobs at the moment. After a stint in rehab, he’s suddenly back in the game with a full caseload when he inherits the law practice of a fellow criminal defense attorney who was shot. This means that Mickey has a full list of new clients to manage, while trying to figure out who killed his co-worker, while also juggling two ex-wives, a teenage daughter and various other distractions – like whether or not his own life might be in danger now that he’s taken over the dead man’s clients.
Legal dramas have long been a staple of TV and film, but with a few exceptions, they haven’t fared particularly well in recent years. Who knows why. Hollywood can be capricious, but also cyclical. And yet, “The Lincoln Lawyer” gives the impression of having real stamina. 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 the genre, and they don’t break new ground so much as providing an antidote to the overwhelming Dick Wolf-ification of the television landscape. (The nine — yes, nine — of Wolfe’s procedurals have been renewed for next season.) By contrast, the cops in “The Lincoln Lawyer” aren’t portrayed as heroes. In fact, the opposite. And that feels like a breath of fresh air, even though one of Mickey’s customers is as smug and obnoxious as can be, which feels right too. If it’s a choice between the wolves and the Kelleys of the world, I’ll take Kelley every time.
Believe it or not, “The Lincoln Lawyer” doesn’t need an actor with enormous charisma to land the title role. This isn’t so much a criticism of star Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as an observation. It’s an understated performance and not particularly memorable, but it’s not boring either. His Mickey is pleasantly mumbled, with a puppy dog countenance that is often crossed with a swagger not to be underestimated. Casting Garcia-Rulfo, originally from Mexico, the series subtly retains a detail from the books, in which Mickey’s mother is Mexican. The character is not one of office politics or legal partner machinations, which is why he would never fit into a larger firm. No, it’s just Mickey dragging 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 handsome middle-aged guys in suits. But Mickey is smart, he has a conscience, and he distrusts the police, qualities that make him a rarity among television shows aimed at a wider audience these days.
It’s best not to think about the 10-episode season compared to Matthew McConaughey’s 2011 film. Stylistically, the two have little in common. But this release (and I suspect there will be more seasons to come) is still a process story, and who doesn’t love a process story? Here, it’s about understanding things: who did what and why, then implementing a strategy. Mickey is aided by a tight-knit team that includes a biker-turned-detective named Cisco (Angus Sampson); Mickey’s lovely ex-wife, Lorna (Becki Newton), who is also his office manager and biggest cheerleader; and Izzy (Jazz Raycole) as driver and sound box.
Why does Mickey need a driver? The reasons are convoluted now that he has a physical office he inherited with this workload. With its dark paneled walls and window blinds, it’s a setting that says: This is where people roll up their sleeves and rummage through paperwork. But Mickey says he thinks better when he’s on the move (and apparently he doesn’t get car sickness from reading in the back seat; teach me your habits, Mickey) and yes, he still owns a Lincoln in this adaptation. In fact, Lincolns in the plural. Has a garage full of them. The number of times we see the framed Lincoln logo suggests that the automaker may indeed have some sort of product placement deal in place. I mean, all you can do is laugh; the one who pays the bills. I don’t know how Mickey’s convertible SUVs and late models weren’t retired during his more than year-long battle with addiction and subsequent recovery when he probably wasn’t earning his usual income. But apparently he was also able to cling to this fabulous house in the Hollywood Hills, which offers a noticeably similar view of the city to that seen from the house of a certain Harry Bosch.
It’s a shame the two shows are on different streamers because the prospect of a crossover seems like fun, even if they were to just bump into each other in the neighborhood. (Mickey and Harry are actually paternal half-brothers, which book readers will already know, but it will be news to anyone who has only encountered these characters in their on-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 follow; she’s impartial and wants to take out the bad guys and doesn’t really question the dysfunction of the system she works in, but no, she’s not fierce. That’s the thing about this show – it’s not that there aren’t slightly grumpy elements, it’s that you’re willing to ignore them. Or at least I am. Some people will watch “The Lincoln Lawyer” and think “No, absolutely not”. Maybe it’s you. But the great LisaGay Hamilton (one of Kelley’s alumni in “The Practice”) periodically shows up as the presiding judge to oversee the transfer of Mickey’s stuff and that in itself is reason enough to watch. And I love the subtle storyline that tells how sexual harassment can derail someone’s career, even when they’re still in law school.
At the moment, shows about crime (violent or otherwise) are mostly told from the perspective of law enforcement and prosecutors and it’s nice to see a series centered around a criminal defense attorney for a change. Mickey is neither fair nor scummy, which seem to be the only two lawyer characterizations Hollywood has had lately. Granted, AMC’s “Better Call Saul” aims for something more narratively complex and cinematically ambitious, but despite having lawyers at its center, it doesn’t quite have the beats or a sense of cocky fun that defines legal drama as a genre. “Better Call Saul” wants to be something else. Something deeper. The same goes for “The Good Fight” on Paramount+ (which should return with new episodes this summer). It is very good. It’s great, actually. But “The Lincoln Lawyer” is a show that unabashedly gives you another option: Our days are tough, and it’s normal to want television to be easy. You don’t get more points in life if your viewing habits lean towards the higher end of the spectrum.
Is “The Lincoln Lawyer” bland? I do not know. Perhaps? A little? I just don’t see that as a bad thing, because it’s also not difficult or too cute (the further Kelley strays from his “Ally McBeal” days, the better). It avoids treating its characters like quirky confections and instead treats them like adults you might encounter in the real world. A few weeks ago, I wrote a column speculating that Netflix might be heading more in that direction, picking up where basic cable blue sky programming left off. This does not guarantee anything, in terms of quality; shows aiming for a lighter touch can be just as abysmal as anything else. (“Emily in Paris” anyone?)
But “The Lincoln Lawyer” does not suffer from this. It’s quite good and often satisfying. That’s more than I can say on a lot of TV.
“Lincoln’s Lawyer” – 3 stars (out of 4)
Where to watch: netflix
Nina Metz is a critic at the Tribune
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