'Defending Jacob': TV Review

Courtesy of Apple
A strong cast elevates a very ordinary drama.
4/24/2020

Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery and Jaeden Martell star in an Apple TV+ drama about a seemingly perfect family that may or may not be harboring a killer.

A Massachusetts couple's life is turned upside down by the possibility that their son Jacob is actually a murderer, forcing them to confront the limits of what they'd do to protect their family or learn the truth. That's the plot of Rosellen Brown's novel Before and After (and its underwhelming film adaptation). It's also the plot, right down to the state and name of the potential demon-spawn son, of William Landay's novel Defending Jacob and the Apple TV+ limited series adaptation that premieres this week.

This isn't to imply any sort of theft or narrative borrowing. Quite the opposite, actually. It's to point out that the parent's worst nightmare scenario in these stories — it's the rare TV procedural that doesn't feature at least one potentially homicidal kid nearly every season — is so entrenched a subgenre that you can have overlapping premises, locations and key character names and nobody even bats an eye.

The conventions are so familiar that it's hard to find a single story beat or plot twist or emotional swing in Defending Jacob that doesn't feel utterly stale, elongated to a running time of eight hours not so much for added nuance, but mostly because the kind of two-hour film Defending Jacob would have been — mid-budget, effects-free entertainment for "grown-ups" — is one ceded to TV long ago. That leaves Defending Jacob with a superb cast and solid production values and little to add to the conversation.

In this version of the "Is my kid a killer?" narrative, the Barbers are a seemingly aspirational Newton family. Laurie (Michelle Dockery) is the face of a school for troubled youth and Andy (Chris Evans) is a rising assistant district attorney, which will be the closest thing to a fresh wrinkle when 14-year-old son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is accused of killing a classmate at his fancy prep school. Is Jacob creepy-but-innocent? Was he a victim of bullying who finally was pushed too far? Or is he just a slave to a dark genetic blueprint? And who the heck did the snazzy interior design for the Barber house?

Defending Jacob was adapted in its entirety by Mark Bomback and directed in its entirety by Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), resulting in a continuity that is generally above average, but never vastly so. Tyldum contributes a solemn consistency that borders on tonal monotony and a decent sense of place, even if people who know the region will probably be able to recognize the sutured Frankenstein assembly of disparate Massachusetts locations. Bomback's treatment of the legal and investigative processes avoids eye-rolling ridiculousness, as does the reliance on the so-called "murder gene," a DNA shortcut that generally tends to be laughably half-explored when it's utilized on TV.

But the show struggles to find momentum. A framing device with Andy being interrogated at a grand jury hearing 10 months after the murder adds foreshadowing and little else before a rushed finale. And just because the writing sometimes is prepared to charge forward to the next surprise or the next legal signpost, that doesn't mean the direction is always on the same page, getting bogged down in multi-minute montages of people looking mournful as the strings wail in the score. It's actually possible that elements that play as structural flaws when binged might make Defending Jacob work better in its weekly expansion.

Andy is the only character who feels like he benefited from stretching the story beyond feature length. His legal and investigative background help structure the story and give the character more resources than your typical "father in search of the truth" archetype. More often than not, Defending Jacob treats itself as a Chris Evans star vehicle. Abetted by a gravitas-conveying beard, Evans is sturdy and conveys the right measure of empathy and fear when he's opposite Martell.

I can't tell if the show doesn't understand Jacob or if it purposefully doesn't want to understand him, as if digging deeper into the character would make him less mysterious. You don't want to over-explain a character who's supposed to be enigmatic, but Jacob is developed only through buzzwords that give Martell nothing to play. Murder gene! Torture porn! Social media!

Better to leave audiences craving more than demanding less, I suppose, but Defending Jacob boasts a tremendous ensemble of actors who make you wish they had the rich characterizations they deserve. Dockery proficiently allows steady flickers of doubt to play beneath Laurie's surface, but the series rarely capitalizes on how good the few Laurie stand-alone scenes are.

Ditto the one or two moments that make Pablo Schreiber's Neal Logiudice — everybody carefully emphasizes the "Judas" part of his last name — into more than just a sneering adversary for Andy. You can appreciate the earthy sensitivity Cherry Jones brings to her part as a caring defense attorney, the terrifying intensity J.K. Simmons provides as an imprisoned murderer with connections to the case or the steely integrity that Betty Gabriel delivers as a dogged detective, while still feeling that with eight hours to fill, they should all have been given more.

The underutilization of these could've-been-leads made me appreciate the series' true supporting performances, like Patrick Fischler as the murder victim's grieving dad, Poorna Jagannathan as the dedicated deliverer of "murder gene" exposition and Jordan Alexa Davis as Jacob's vulnerable friend and classmate.

I understand the very primal resonance of this genre. As an audience, we're meant to think we know what criminals look like and what their backgrounds are like, assumptions built on an underlying foundation of classism and racism. If you're a parent, you always just assume that you're raising and nurturing a future hero, that you're doing right the things that the parents of future criminals are not.

Even as pervasive as kids-gone-bad stories are, they can still be scary and disturbing, whether in a film like Birth or We Need to Talk About Kevin or as a procedural story element on shows like Evil. The limited-series duration of Defending Jacob probably should have been its differentiating factor, which is what makes the decent but disposable result such a disappointing shrug. It's OK.

Cast: Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery, Jaeden Martell, Cherry Jones, Pablo Schreiber, Sakina Jaffrey, Betty Gabriel, J.K. Simmons
Creator: Mark Bomback, from the book by William Landay
Director: Morten Tyldum
Three episodes premiere Friday; remaining episodes debut weekly (Apple TV+)