Modern day television characters have too many dimensions and too many secret sorrows and not enough episodic adventures. When I was a boy, television characters had just one or two character traits and these were largely represented by intriguing costume choices. They also had new adventures every week and learned nothing from them.
Magnum PI, for example, had a moustache and shorts. This was also his personality. If he had a secret sorrow it was possibly that he wished his shorts were shorter. But frankly, it never really came up.
Simon and Simon were crime-solving brothers. One of them had a hat and the other did not. This was also key to their personality. There were finger clicks on the soundtrack but there were finger clicks on everything in the 1980s – songs, visits to the zoo, trade summits. If Simon and Simon had a secret sorrow it was that they wished there were even more finger clicks on things.
The A-Team had four whole personalities/props, which we thought was really generous. Hannibal wore a safari jacket and smoked a cigar. Face had a face, which was thin characterisation even by 1980s standards. BA Baracus wore jewellery, pitied fools and had mysterious concussions that would have been dwelt upon in tedious depth in a modern production.
Many 'golden age of television' dramas with more ambition constantly strained for narrative and psychological complexity but often ended up with baggy, shapeless stories
Murdoch had a baseball hat and serious mental health problems. Their group identity was that they had a van and fired machine guns without aiming them properly.
Murder She Wrote had a typewriter and was surrounded by death. Her frowning at murdery people was also on point. This is a whopping three dimensions and makes her the best television character ever. Also, Murder She Wrote wasn’t her name. Her name was “Jessica Fletcher” and she was a legend but I prefer to call her Murder She Wrote and I feel if they ever remake it her name should be Murder She Wrote.
All these shows were great, but then the noughties happened and people began saying shows like The Sopranos and The Wire were like “novels” and everyone forgot about making television programmes that were like television programmes. When TV producers did make episodic story-of-the week detective shows like Criminal Minds or Law and Order, they added gruesome murders and dour suit-wearing detectives who didn’t have the sense to peacock about with lollypops or monocles or parrots on their shoulders or tricorn hats.
Meanwhile many “golden age of television” dramas with more ambition constantly strained for narrative and psychological complexity but often ended up with baggy, shapeless stories and main characters who had just one character trait (“is a bit sad”) and no interesting costume choices at all.
The reason I like The Lincoln Lawyer (Netflix) is because it features episodic elements and, also, the eponymous Lawyer has a simple personality: he lawyers the heck out of things while owning a car. That's his thing. At first, I hoped that the Lincoln Lawyer would be a lawyer who dresses like Abraham Lincoln (I didn't know a Lincoln was a type of car) but I see now that that would be overkill.
The Lincoln Lawyer knows we need to take baby steps back towards the television perfection of the 1980s. Perhaps as the series proceeds, he'll start performatively chewing on a toothpick or will don an eyepatch or a cape or a codpiece. I'm just impressed by the fact someone went into Netflix and pitched "Lawyer who owns a car" as a TV show.
(I know the reality here is that TV producers nowadays make everything from pre-existing intellectual property because having new ideas is over and this is actually based on a series of successful crime novels by Michael Connelly. I'm fine with that).
The Lincoln Lawyer is Mickey Haller (Manuel Garcia-Ruffo), who has been out of the lawyering game due to an addiction to prescription pills but has inherited a practice from a colleague who died in mysterious circumstances. Don't worry! He's sober now and his addiction only comes up sporadically. His colleague is still dead though, so do worry about him.
Mickey puts together a team – hairy tough guy, sassy office person, quick-witted driver – and they set out to solve the mystery of his benefactor’s death while also engaging in story-of-the-week shenanigans.
He comes with two ex-wives (one of whom is the sassy office person) and a typically wise-beyond-her-years teenage daughter, who, in a probable measure of why he’s divorced, are not important enough to share top billing with his car. Sporadically people refer to him as the Lincoln Lawyer.
"The Lincoln Lawyer, that what they call you?" asks a judge at one point, which makes me wonder if having a car is really worthy of a nickname in America. Would I be called the Nissan Micra journalist? I hope so. As time goes on though, I become certain that Mickey Haller gave himself the nickname as an attempt to look cool after returning to school after the summer holidays. "The Lincoln Lawyer, that's what they call me, on account of me having a car."
In the first few episodes Mickey endeavours to help a tech mogul who has been accused of murder. When he meets the mogul, he’s playing basketball on the roof of his company’s building. This roof has no fence around it. If the murder victim had been found poleaxed by a wayward basketball at the base of this building, the case would be, excuse the pun, a slam dunk.
Luckily, for the Lincoln Lawyer, the murder victims were the billionaire’s wife and her lover, both found dead in his marital bed with non-basketball related injuries. The Lincoln Lawyer attempts to get the tech mogul acquitted, while also helping other non-billionairey people who are all being prosecuted by people less suave, competent and car-themed than he.
The Lincoln Lawyer is zippy, eventful and fun. It has high levels of melodrama but low stakes. And frankly, it’s nice to start watching a television show that doesn’t feel like signing up to a long mortgage. Also, every now and again someone says: “Nice car, man” and the Lincoln Lawyer has to stop himself from turning to the camera and doing finger guns. Hopefully by the second series he’ll be wearing shorts.
If a television show is going to ask for a big emotional commitment from me nowadays it helps if it has short episodes and short seasons. So, Barry, co-created by and starring Bill Hader, is perfect. The third season is currently on Sky Comedy and Now TV.
It’s a tragicomic story of a hitman who develops a love for acting. It completely upends the notion that engaging with art leads to moral improvement, with Barry’s desire to be an actor and a better person coinciding with his worst behaviour.
And each episode moves between being very funny and being very unsettling. My only note, really, is that it should be called The Actor Hitman but that’s probably because I’ve been watching The Lincoln Lawyer and my mind has gone all literal.