Review: Defending Jacob looks like prestige TV but that’s about it

Apple's mystery series starring Chris Evans as a district attorney whose teenage son is charged with murder never really comes to life


DEFENDING JACOB (Mark Bomback). Three episodes available on Apple TV+ today (Friday), and new episodes streaming Fridays through May 29. Rating: NN


I’ll give it this: Defending Jacob certainly looks like a big, prestigious TV series. No expense has been spared in the production of the latest Apple original show, which dropped its first three episodes today (April 24) and will roll out the next five on subsequent Fridays.

Writer/producer Mark Bomback starts with stunt casting, dropping Chris Evans – Captain America himself – into the morally conflicted role of Andy Barber, a district attorney in a wealthy Massachusetts town whose teenage son (Evans’s Knives Out co-star Jaeden Martell) is charged with the brutal murder of a classmate.

Evans is surrounded by a host of character actors you’ll know from other things you already like: Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery, Orange Is The New Black’s Pablo Schreiber, Get Out’s Betty Gabriel, Cherry Jones, Sakina Jaffrey. (A fairly recognizable Oscar winner arrives later in the season for a crucial cameo, as well.) Director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game, Passengers) and cinematographer Jonathan Freeman shoot every scene like a tony European thriller, all steely greys and forbidding shadows. Even the opening credits work hard to tell us how important and cerebral the series will be.

But something essential is missing: momentum. Bomback has taken taken William Landay’s 2012 novel – which might have made a decent movie, or maybe a four-hour miniseries – and gone the full Broadchurch with it, stretching out everything for maximum portent, hoping to create a tapestry of characters tied together by secrets, grudges, anger and darkness. And that just doesn’t happen.

One reason is that the mechanics of Landay’s story are so simple that we understand where all the key characters are coming from in the first episode, thanks to the framing device of a grand jury hearing that pits Andy – now no longer a DA – against his former colleague-turned-nemesis Neal Logudice (Schreiber). We quickly flash back to see an objective version of the events that will lead back to that grand jury, and in very short order Bomback establishes a collection of stock characters rather than complex human beings: parents who will do anything to protect their son, and prosecutors and police who won’t give them an inch of leniency because it might be bad optics to go easy on a district attorney’s kid.

Which, honestly, is exactly the way a case like this should be handled… but the show doesn’t seem to be aware of that: it stays firmly on Andy’s side as he makes a series of bad choices – and pushes right up against the edge of the law – in the course of to managing the situation. He has his reasons, after all.

I wanted to go with it, because flawed characters make for excellent drama – and because Chris Evans is very good at playing a man trying to negotiate his way out of a personal collapse – but Defending Jacob keeps painting everyone who isn’t a member of the Barber family as unyielding, unsympathetic antagonists who refuse to be “reasonable” (whatever that would mean in this situation) rather than people with entirely reasonable objections to a father prosecuting a criminal case against his own son. Even Andy’s wife Laura (Dockery) is nudged aside as the story unfolds, because she’s deemed not appropriately sympathetic.

Landay’s novel was written from Andy’s perspective, which might explain some of the characterizations, but the show is more objective, and it’s weird that Bomback didn’t deal with that. (Gabriel manages to inject some empathy into her role as a police detective who’s worked with Andy forever, but it’s not on the page.)

It also doesn’t help matters that the running times creep up from 45 minutes at the outset to over an hour by the end, which works against the dramatic currents Tyldum establishes in the first two episodes. A mystery – especially one with stakes as clear and as personal as this -should be tighter, more urgent, moving relentlessly towards its resolution. Defending Jacob doesn’t do that. But it sure looks pretty.

@normwilner

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