Netflix’s ‘The Lincoln Lawyer’ Makes a Case for Network-Style Legal Thrillers With Binge-Worthy Zest
The legal thriller is alive and fun in Netflix’s “The Lincoln Lawyer,” a show that feels both fresh but also rather old-school. It’s a throwback to the kind of weekly procedural that was common back in the ‘90s with a scruffy rebel at its center. The best TV lawyers and cops have a likable dysfunctionality, which is what makes Mickey Haller (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) easy to follow even through the show’s standard plots. If the title and character sound familiar, that’s because the show is based on a series of novels by Michael Connelly, which had been previously adapted into a hit 2011 movie starring Matthew McConaughey. Fear not if you never watched the movie or read the books. This incarnation is created by David E. Kelley, a TV guru who specializes in entertainment that can crackle, get corny, or successfully balance both.
Predictably, the show opens with a mystery that kicks the overall narrative into high gear. A notable lawyer named Jimmy Vincent is shot dead in a Los Angeles parking lot. When we meet Haller he has stepped away from practicing law after surviving an addiction to painkillers. Vincent’s murder gets him called back into the game for one shocking reason: Vincent has bequeathed to Haller his law practice, including a vast list of clients. Judge Mary Holder (LisaGay Hamilton) tasks herself with keeping tabs on Haller as he takes on a mountain of pro bono cases and potential, high-paying clients. As an assistant he hires his ex-wife and lawyer, Lorna (Becki Newton), who is secretly dating his investigator, former biker gang member Angus (Angus Sampson). All the new cases might take away attention from some of Haller’s other stresses, like the rocky relationship with his other ex-wife, Maggie (Neve Campbell). Among his new batch of clients, the most important is Trevor Elliott (Christopher Gorham), a wealthy video game developer accused of murdering his wife in a jealous rage.
As with the McConaughey movie, the energy here is derived from the way Haller can’t keep still. “The Lincoln Lawyer” can play like Hector Tobar’s novel “The Barbarian Nurseries” in the way it’s a tour through all the different corners of Los Angeles and its communities, with doses of dark humor all around. Under Kelley’s supervision, there’s a classic network TV feel to how Haller’s clients are tailored for feel-good drama. There’s the former drug addict accused of snatching a necklace, which turns out to not have even been authentic. Izzy (Jazz Raycole), the former addict, also becomes Haller’s official driver, using a Lincoln of course. She gets to maneuver around the city while he deals with clients and the exes over the phone in the backseat. He might also have to pour through scattered files. Several favorite L.A. spots became background characters, like Pink’s Hot Dogs or the Viper Room. Much of the show can feel like a light take on the “Law & Order” format. The structure consists of different cases in every episode, some small, others very serious, while the main one is the murder mystery involving Elliott.
While the case surrounding the rich video game entrepreneur drives the overall plot of the first season, “The Lincoln Lawyer” is best enjoyed as an ensemble. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is both cocky and cautious as Haller, who also gets turned into a Latino, which is refreshing considering how L.A.’s actual diversity needs more representation when it comes to leads. He’s given a worthy semi-antagonist in detective Raymond Griggs (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), who is investigating the Vincent murder and suspect Haller might somehow be involved. Other supporting characters get the typical, satisfying Kelley treatment, like Maggie getting her own storyline involving trying to takedown a human trafficking ring. Krista Warner also looks more plucked out of Kelley’ TV universe than a gritty detective novel, as Haller and Maggie’s daughter Hayley. But she brings a warm, endearing presence as the daughter who has an eternal fondness for her dad, who lives such a chaotic life. The banter between everyone ranges from gritty to cute. Big tough Angus is a teddy bear who nervously tells Haller about his relationship with Lorna, which Haller is of course fine with. “The Lincoln Lawyer” may be a streaming show, yet it’s an enjoyable retread to the kind of TV we would tune in for on a weekly basis. This also makes it highly bingeable. We don’t care so much for every layer of the Elliott case as for more scenes where Garcia-Rulfo and the rest of the cast banter or drip with irony. Even Neve Campbell looks like she’s just here to have fun as the angsty ex. The brisk writing and pace keep it engaging, and it’s certainly more fun than getting called in for jury duty.
“The Lincoln Lawyer” season one begins streaming May 13 on Netflix.