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‘Partner Track’ is half rom-com, half legal drama

Part rom-com, part legal drama, “Partner Track” is the kind of frothy programming Netflix has been doubling down on that’s ideal viewing when your brain is fried and your feet are barking. It’s the glossy magazine equivalent of TV: Doesn’t require your undivided attention to be enjoyable, but is just engrossing enough to keep you watching.

Landing somewhere between “Suits” and “Ally McBeal,” the show is based on the 2013 novel by Helen Wan and centers on a young New York lawyer named Ingrid Yun (Arden Cho) looking to make partner. The high-end law firm where she’s employed is a sea of white men — patrician, fratty, sharklike, you name it — which means Ingrid and her two nonwhite guy besties at work are forever batting away aggressions micro and overt.

If putting up with this kind of racist, sexist hazing means they’ll eventually make partner — putting them in a position to effect real change at the firm — well, fine, these three pals grudgingly surmise. Whether this strategy actually bears fruit is one of the season’s ongoing questions.

Ingrid works in mergers and acquisitions, so her lawyering is done in the conference room rather than the courtroom. That can be just as compelling if it’s written with some energy and flair when it comes to workplace chicanery, which is the case about half the time here. As played by Cho, Ingrid is a winning combination of glamour and a desperation to prove herself. The child of Korean immigrants, there’s a lot riding on her success: Money is security, her mother tells her. Money is safety. There are all kinds of compromises she will be asked to make as she pursues her goal and the firm’s phony baloney diversity gala — which she’s forced to chair — is a very sharp depiction of how these things usually go down. All talk, no action. Smile for the camera.

But really, mergers and acquisitions? Ingrid is experiencing legitimately unfair and damaging workplace biases, but in the grander scheme of things, she is not the underdog! She is very much part of the apparatus (at least initially) that ruthlessly crushes everything in its path!

It’s a series that asks you to not think too deeply about any of that, and I’m inclined to go along with it because the show does indeed have a moral compass amid its sleek wardrobes, glorious apartments and a trio of handsome love interests. Ingrid’s potential suitors are somewhat blandly rendered, but the show has giddily contrived moments wherein each shows up shirtless, and who knew all these business guys secretly had abs!

I also like the way the show gives real storylines to Ingrid’s two office pals — Tyler (Bradley Gibson) and Rachel (Alexandra Turshen) — who share a sarcastic sense of humor and have independent lives that are separate from Ingrid’s romantic intrigue and workplace drama. As one of the few Black lawyers at the firm, Tyler is at a crossroads, feeling the same tokenized pressures as Ingrid and realizing it may not be worth it in the long run. Rachel is a good lawyer, but less ambitious about her future at the firm; she’s over it and would rather be doing something else with her life. How each navigates these issues is treated as just as important as Ingrid’s dilemmas.

In fact, Tyler actually gets all the best lines. To a co-worker: “We’re pitching to the hottest underground fashion label in town and you’re dressed like a dollar store ‘American Psycho.’” Or scolding Rachel when she doesn’t get a pop culture reference: “How many times have we watched ‘Sex and the City’ and you still have not seen ‘Living Single’? It’s disrespectful.” Or replying to a text saying “Wish you were here” with the barfy face emoji. He also has an amazing mustard-colored wool coat that is to die for.

If only the show were a tick or two better. I haven’t read Wan’s book (which draws from her own experiences as a lawyer) but I’ve seen it described as “smart, incisive and fast-paced.”

That’s not how I would describe the TV adaptation from showrunners Georgia Lee and Sarah Goldfinger, which resorts to some cringey “Emily in Paris”-style goofiness in the early going. There are also missed opportunities to subvert expectations. When a client mistakes Ingrid for a paralegal and asks her to fetch some Pellegrino, she politely sets him straight. “Well, shoot,” he says chuckling, “no hard feelings, I hope. You just don’t look at day over 18. You folks (Asian people) are lucky that way, right?” Ingrid’s expression as he’s talking is sort of a half-eye roll, and I wish Cho had been allowed to play more with her reaction. There’s a lot going through a person’s mind in these situations — you’re livid and embarrassed, while also knowing this is a client you have to keep happy — and allowing more of those conflicted emotions to subtly play across Cho’s face is the kind of thing that would have elevated the moment.

Gradually, though, the show takes itself more seriously as the season progresses. Light TV can be intelligent. “Partner Track” works best when it remembers that.

“Partner Track” — 2.5 stars (out of 4)

Where to watch: Netflix

Nina Metz is a Tribune critic

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