In expanding its slate of originals, Apple TV+ has waded into anthology, docuseries, workplace comedy, and even reboot territory. The (relatively) new streamer continues making its way down a checklist of “what would networks/Netflix do?” with Defending Jacob, a crime drama and star-studded limited series in one. Mark Bomback (War For The Planet Of The Apes) crafts a faithful-with-a-twist adaptation of William Landay’s 2012 novel of the same name, but the eight-part series suffers from being both too restrained and too expansive.
The series, premiering April 24, follows the template of Landay’s compelling crime novel. The murder of a local teen rocks the midsize Massachusetts town where the Barber family—Andy (Chris Evans), Laurie (Michelle Dockery), and their 14-year-old son Jacob (Jaeden Martell)—lead a seemingly charmed existence. Andy and Laurie are practically pillars of the community: He’s an assistant district attorney, while she works for a nonprofit that serves underprivileged children. Their family photos would look at home in a catalog, even though Jacob struggles to be as personable as his folks (such is the price of having Captain America and Lady Mary Crawley as your parents, we suppose). But their lives are quickly turned upside down when Jacob is accused of killing his classmate, Ben Rifkin (Liam Kilbreth).
When Defending Jacob focuses on the murder investigation and subsequent trial, it’s a straightforward legal drama, complete with flashy psychological terms and lawyers who won’t play by the rules (both Andy and his former colleague Neal Loguidice, who’s played by Pablo Schreiber). Paula “Duff” Duffy (Betty Gabriel) is the compassionate cop who never loses sight of the people who make up her investigation, while Cherry Jones brings a serene charm to the proceedings as Jacob’s defense lawyer Joanna Klein. Late-hour discoveries elicit gasps in the courtroom, while the occasionally intrusive flashback structure makes us question what we’re witnessing in the past and present.
Even if you haven’t read Landay’s book, you’ll find this a most familiar rhythm, the kind that drives stories of teens gone bad and “a parent’s worst nightmare” in equal measure. The accusations are always a bucket of cold water, but it’s the creeping sense of doubt that really undermines the family dynamic. Defending Jacob dutifully takes us through the paces, with Laurie and Andy taking turns wrestling with their suspicions, while potential new suspects are introduced to throw investigators—and viewers—off the scent. Bomback and series director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) generate just enough suspense to keep things moving from episode to episode, but what power Defending Jacob does have comes from the quieter moments, the time spent inside the Barber home.
For all its courtroom maneuvering, Defending Jacob’s potential isn’t rooted in the story of the accused (though Bomback does manage to maintain the novel’s ambiguity throughout the show) but as a series of betrayals, each more personal and painful than the last. Tyldum shoots the series in perpetual twilight, which borders on lugubrious at times, but also effectively captures the growing sense of disillusionment. Despite all their efforts, Andy and Laurie realize that their family was never perfect, a revelation that takes a distinct psychological toll on both. Everywhere they look, there’s more disappointment or failure. Laurie feels let down by Andy; and Andy, whose traumatic childhood drove him to find moral guidance in the law, now feels betrayed by it. And then there’s the matter of responsibility for Jacob’s alleged actions: “He learned it from me.” “Maybe he learned it from both of us.”
But all too often, the legal drama takes precedence over the disintegration of this family. Jones and Schreiber do their best to liven up the courtroom scenes, engaging in some barely civil sparring over how much our biology informs who we become, a matter that is more thoughtfully, but all too rarely, parsed in Andy’s storyline. As someone from Andy’s past, a wry J.K. Simmons has a hand in the lawyer coming to terms with the less desirable parts of his own history; late in the series, he poses a choice to Andy, who leaves just as devastated as when he learned of Jacob’s arrest.
Defending Jacob would have made a better case for itself as (at most) a four-hour limited series, hunkering down in the Barber home, a well-appointed residence that looks more like the “after” in an HGTV renovation than a cozy family dwelling, to wrestle with Andy and Laurie’s fears over what they’ve passed down to their son, whom they might not ever really know. There’s an unease among the performers that suits their newly blown-up family dynamic well: Dockery gradually shuts down before exploding in the final act, while Evans makes a surprisingly realistic dad, complete with corny jokes and a grand vision for his son. As Jacob, Martell finds all kinds of gradients between impassive and furious, looking every bit the questioning teen in one moment then shuttering his expression so that even his parents don’t know what he’s thinking.
But the story never lingers long enough at home for the family drama to really take hold. Instead, Andy storms around town trying to establish his son’s innocence if not outright avenge him, which offers a potentially fascinating contrast to how his wife Laurie must barricade herself at home. It’s one of the many ways Defending Jacob flirts with power dynamics: The Barber family’s privilege also comes into play, thanks to some insight from Gabriel’s character, but it’s yet another road that the show outlines without fully pursuing. The result is a story that feels both overstuffed and underdeveloped. Like its namesake, Defending Jacob is brought down just as it’s taking off.