Netflix’s new legal drama The Lincoln Lawyer is at least somewhat entertaining for a show with a bland central character, as many as three generally bland simultaneous plotlines and no notable perspective on the criminal justice system circa 2022.
It’s Netflix’s version of the sort of retro TNT drama that I only know exists because I left my television on after an NBA game; the kind of USA drama that USA stopped making when it bailed on scripted programming; a lesser incarnation of the type of algorithmic book-to-screen Amazon pipeline that brought us Reacher and Jack Ryan and Bosch — except that if The Lincoln Lawyer were on Amazon, it could have actually been the Bosch semi-spinoff. Then again, if The Lincoln Lawyer had aired on Amazon, everybody would have just compared it to creator David E. Kelley’s Goliath, a murkier, more nuanced series covering similar terrain.
The Lincoln Lawyer
The Bottom Line
Doomed by a weakly structured plot and poorly sketched protagonist.
There’s still absolutely an audience out there for The Lincoln Lawyer, and while the TV critic portion of that audience might prefer it if it were grittier or more morally complex, a wider swathe probably won’t care. The Lincoln Lawyer moves along at a fast clip and offers the occasional surprise and one or two likable supporting performances, and if the pedigree suggests it should be much better than it is, so much the worse for those of us who care about such things; what’s being aspired to here is only rudimentary pot-boiling.
Created by Kelley and developed by Ted Humphrey (The Good Wife), The Lincoln Lawyer hails from the same Michael Connelly book series that birthed a superior Matthew McConaughey feature of the same title.
Manuel Garcia-Rulfo plays Mickey Haller, half-brother to Harry Bosch on the page, but unrelated here because Amazon owns Harry Bosch. Mickey is an extremely successful defense attorney, except that the series — which takes the loose shape of its plot from Connelly’s The Brass Verdict — picks up with the character coming off of a one-year hiatus in which he had a near-death experience while surfing, became hooked on painkillers and nearly stopped lawyering entirely. This has impacted his mojo, but not his ability to make payments on a hilltop house that pales in comparison to the main character’s abode on Bosch, but otherwise delivers a modicum of real estate porn.
Then a former colleague is murdered and he leaves his practice to Mickey. This is exciting for Mickey’s ex-wife and legal assistant Lorna (Becki Newton) and their lead investigator Cisco (Angus Sampson), since they both need an income. It’s hopeful for Mickey’s other ex-wife Maggie (Neve Campbell), a dogged prosecutor, and their teenage daughter Hayley (Krista Warner), since they both want Mickey to get out of his rut.
The crown jewel of the dead attorney’s docket is a potentially lucrative and high-profile case involving a tech mogul (Christopher Gorham) accused of murdering his wife and her yoga-instructor boyfriend. It’s an approaching trial that could return Mickey to the big-time or it might get him killed. Meanwhile, the dead attorney had a bunch of smaller cases, including one involving a former addict (Jazz Raycole’s Izzy) whom Mickey hires as his driver, because Mickey likes working out of the back of his Lincoln, because otherwise the show’s title would make no sense. Think Drive My Car as a legal procedural only otherwise nothing like Drive My Car at all.
What does it all have to do with life in a city in which law and order are seemingly always cloaked in controversies tied to racial or social stratification? Not a darned thing, which is extra disappointing since the series restores the character’s racial background after the movie’s whitewashing.
Sometimes it’s challenging to articulate why a show like The Lincoln Lawyer doesn’t work, but in this instance it’s rather easy. The murder case that stretches across the 10-episode first season is dull and structured like the A-plot in too many Dick Wolf procedurals to count, though perennial nice guy Gorham is enjoying playing somebody with more potential darkness.
Maggie has her own case that stretches through much of the season, only the writers completely forget to establish any stakes or individual characters, so it just shambles along until it inevitably dovetails with the thing Mickey is working on. And then there are Mickey’s cases-of-the-week, which feel like a remnant from a development process that started at CBS — cases that exist only to introduce connections and contrivances to get Mickey out of future scrapes.
Maybe if those procedural mini-cases were also used to illustrate Mickey’s gifts as a lawyer they would serve a meaningful purpose. Instead, he cracks each of the mini-cases in the same creatively anemic way. Then the mini-cases vanish and, in the middle of the main trial, Mickey illustrates his gifts as a lawyer by mansplaining extremely rudimentary legal principles to Izzy from the back of his Lincoln. It’s an erratically utilized framing device that makes very little practical sense — at no point does Izzy tell Mickey, “Explain jury selection to me like I’m a stupid four-year-old” — and surely isn’t entertaining.
So much of what Mickey does in the series is so limp that I honestly can’t say if Garcia-Rulfo is giving a limp performance or is just unable to breathe colorful life into the character. Instead of having an unscrupulous-to-virtuous arc, he arrives with so many scruples that there’s nary a glimpse of the lawyer Mickey used to be and so there’s no point in investing in the lawyer he becomes. Garcia-Rulfo and Warner have a believably sweet chemistry, but there’s no heat at all between Garcia-Rulfo and Campbell, who spends most of the series in hands-on-hips disapproval.
What spark the show has mostly comes from the reliably spunky Newton, the reliably gruff Sampson and LisaGay Hamilton, having a scene-stealing spring with this and The Dropout, as a judge sternly monitoring Mickey’s legal comeback. When the show remembers he’s there at all, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine is very good as the detective written into the show to replace Harry Bosch from the book, though he has no human characteristics at all, just an uncanny ability to show up at necessary moments.
If you don’t think too hard about any of it, there are some acceptable twists that push you through the second half of The Lincoln Lawyer, while the first half is dominated by a varied and photogenic use of Los Angeles locations. None of that is a substitute for a compelling title character or a consistently propulsive narrative, which happen to be key things Connelly’s fans will be hoping for.