Broadcast TV wishes it had a procedural show this well-constructed
May 13th saw the premiere of The Lincoln Lawyer on Netflix. With Netflix in free fall as a brand, suffering from poor subscription numbers in part due to its genuinely baffling production strategy of approving projects practically at random, The Lincoln Lawyer at first seems like more of the same. If the name The Lincoln Lawyer sound vaguely familiar, you might be thinking of the 2011 Matthew McConaughey movie where he plays…a lawyer who works out of a Lincoln, Mickey Haller. As in, the car. Both Lincoln Lawyers are adapted from the same series of novels. The film version adapts the first book and the Netflix show the second. The continuity sort of fits, if you avoid squinting too hard, with Manuel Garcia-Rulfo’s infrequent Spanish accent being the main obvious difference between his performance and McConaughey’s.
So granted, The Lincoln Lawyer is an existing intellectual property. Was that really the only reason Netflix greenlit it? Well, not quite. David E. Kelley, the legendary name behind such broadcast network shows as Doogie Howser to The Practice to Boston Public, produced it. More recently he’s produced Goliath, Little Big Lies, and Nine Perfect Strangers. In the era of streaming, David E. Kelley has a noteworthy reputation for stories that are largely down-to-earth and focused heavily on interpersonal logic. This kind of screenwriting isn’t that popular with the entertainment press, who increasingly prefer exotic fantasies and high concepts over stories grounded in the real world.
The Lincoln Lawyer has been no exception to that rule. Yes, The Lincoln Lawyer might be the number one Netflix TV show now, but it received almost no coverage whatsoever up to the moment of its release. Ironically enough, The Lincoln Lawyer is getting coverage now probably thanks to the Netflix angle. Kelley originally created the show for network television, and it shows in the tight pacing. Episodes in the 40 to 50 minute range tend not to overstay their welcome. They resolve cliffhangers almost immediately on the start of a new episode.
The writing is highly methodical. After they set up the situation by which Mickey Haller begins to practice law again, episodes tend to focus on one specific phase of the big trial. You can binge The Lincoln Lawyer if you want, but like most quality network TV, the story works best if you give it room to breathe, and give yourself time speculate. Did video game celebrity Trevor Elliott kill his wife? Who killed the lawyer Jerry Vincent in the opening scene? What legal technicality will Mickey Haller come up with to save this seemingly random minor client?
The Lincoln Lawyer is, as you might expect from David E. Kelley, quality legal procedural television, with a strong sense of internal logic. Unfortunately The Lincoln Lawyer, has, also as expected from David E. Kelley, a fairly questionable relationship with lawyering in the real world. The major, pervasive trope about defense attorneys to this day is that their work is ethically compromised on account of the fact that they represent criminals. Kelley did a lot to popularize these tropes with The Practice and Boston Legal, with hypercomptent, near-invincible defense attorneys who deploy their mastery of weird tricks to rescue clients who are obviously unrepentant criminals.
The Lincoln Lawyer shows no real awareness of the flawed underpinning of this discourse, even though it drops a few extremely muddled criticisms of woke culture, as if woke culture invented the idea of sinister defense attorneys or even discusses them at all. Other dubious incidental dialog includes prosecutor Jeff Golantz, played by Michael Graziadei, telling the outright lie that flush with cash defense attorneys easily outspend poor outgunned prosecutors.
Such logic incomprehensibly exists alongside an offhand reference by Mickey Haller’s first wife, prosecutor Maggie McPherson, played by Neve Campbell, that police defunding will prevent the LAPD from protecting witnesses. Or another comment from Mickey Haller himself that a celebrity lawyer who loses once is just a loser forever, citing Johnnie Cochran of all people as an example. Johnnie Cochran had a strong reputation as a lawyer long before the O.J. Simpson case, which he wasn’t even expected to win. And incidentally, contrary to Golantz’s claims, even in the O.J. Simpson case, the one everyone points to in terms of a wealthy criminal being able to buy his freedom, the prosecution outspent the defense.
The actual story of the modern day criminal justice system is a far less idealistic one, with overcharging of minor crimes and prison overcrowding being major social issues. Now, to be fair, The Lincoln Lawyer deals with this as well, not just in incidental dialogue but in full-on plot points where Mickey Haller deals with clients who fell through the cracks. We also see examples of defendants trapped in legal purgatory because the court system is so backed up it takes months for anyone to receive a trial. But then at other times they can scheduled a new hearing a mere day in advance.
That’s all kind of nitpicky, though. It wouldn’t exactly make for compelling drama if any time Mickey Haller asks for a continuance we need to wait five episodes before even seeing the defendant again. The ethical dilemma of The Lincoln Lawyer is the bigger issue. The show makes it seems as if morality rather than patience and burnout regarding the awful design of the legal system is the only real issue with being a defense attorney.
Whether Trevor Elliott actually killed his wife or not is besides the point. The question is whether the prosecution presents a compelling case that he did- and while I can’t tell you whether they do that without spoiling the ending, I can tell you that The Lincoln Lawyer never treats the evidentiary aspect of criminal prosecution as being relevant. It presents rules as something tying the hands of prosecutors against unscrupulous, overpowered criminals, not something preventing them from engaging in corrupt, malicious prosecution. This presentation holds even as the story gets into plot points about government representatives of the legal system abusing their power for personal gain.
But honestly, for all its flaws, the sheer meticulous construction of The Lincoln Lawyer is genuinely impressive. A lot of work went into the internal continuity of the story, occasional factual error notwithstanding. The characters are compelling, and the actors have strong chemistry. More than anything else there’s a refreshing lack of a pretension. Everyone involved set out to create a compelling legal mystery first, all other aspects being secondary, and the effort shows.
The Lincoln Lawyer also benefits a lot from comparison. Law and Order just continued its already atrocious revival with a storyline that blamed domestic abuse on Havana Syndrome, of all stupid things. The Lincoln Lawyer at its worst is fairly inoffensive in comparison. I have to expect that CBS is kicking itself right now for letting Netflix get hold of this show. As bad as Netflix has been lately, it’s not like the broadcast networks have been taking advantage of the streaming giant’s weaknesses.