David E. Kelley never went away, exactly, but his brand of high-middlebrow drama conveyed with alternating froth and gravity has been particularly thick on the ground of late. Earlier this spring, Netflix debuted his “Anatomy of a Scandal,” following on a run of recent successes that has also included “Nine Perfect Strangers,” “The Undoing,” and “Big Little Lies,” all starring Nicole Kidman.
With “The Lincoln Lawyer,” Kelley continues his recent alliance with Netflix (though the series was initially intended to air on CBS and is produced by A+E Studios). He also — as he did with his trio of Kidman series, which were all literary adaptations — sublimates his vision to that of another author. Here, he’s adapting the work of novelist Michael Connelly, whose character Mickey Haller runs his law practice from the backseat of the titular town car, driving around a Los Angeles full of potential clients. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo plays Mickey as a wounded creature — just emerging from opioid addiction after an accident, we’re told — who is governed by a belief in his lawyering abilities.
Mickey’s attempts to stay on the straight and narrow make for one narrative thread in this series, emphasized by his working relationship with the recovering addict he hires as his driver (played by Jazz Raycole). Elsewhere, “The Lincoln Lawyer” turns its attention to his work on behalf of a tech genius on trial for murder who insists that, for the sake of his company’s image and solvency, he be found not merely not guilty but innocent. This allows for a certain Kelleyish willingness to lecture the audience on the ins and outs of trial law.
Kelley’s belief in the inherent intrigue of the legal process helps him along; one can sense enthusiasm undergirding, say, an episode built around the jury-selection process. But others of the creator’s tricks fail him, like a tendency to lean hard on the quirkiness of bit players studded through the story, seemingly intended as a sort of comic relief that doesn’t consistently land. (Would you believe, for instance, that one of Mickey’s clients is a college student who can’t stop nude sunbathing and thinks Americans are uptight?) There’s a seeming attempt to graft on some of the zany zing of the “Ally McBeal” days here.
And that show, as with other Kelley properties, had a dynamic lead; Garcia-Rulfo is an appealing performer, but he’s surprisingly low-key. His Mickey can feel in demeanor like a character to whom things happen, even as the script and story insist his mind is constantly whirring with possibilities. To wit: Exchanges between Garcia-Rulfo and his ex-wives, played by Neve Campbell and Becki Newton as two legal professionals both very much a part of his present-day life, seem to get all their snap from the women, and courtroom scenes are often strangely sapped of energy (hardly a complaint one is used to making about a Kelley series). At its best, the Kelley legal drama has real bite and something to say. In “The Lincoln Lawyer,” working off of a novelist’s script, Kelley amasses incident — personal and family drama along with court cases — but doesn’t quite pull it all together.
“The Lincoln Lawyer” debuts Friday, May 13, on Netflix.