In the rich tradition of “The Rainmaker,” “Primal Fear,” and any other legal drama where an attorney goes above and beyond the call of duty for their client, Apple TV+ ushers in the 2020 version, “Defending Jacob.” Filled with smart-sounding legalese and impassioned pleas for justice, the eight-part limited series based on William Landay’s completely fictitious 2012 novel sees the tables turned on a Massachusetts district attorney (played by Massachusetts’ favorite Chris, Chris Evans) whose son is accused of killing another teen boy. Freed from the moral shackles of his role as state prosecutor, Andrew Barber can — and will — do whatever it takes to prove his child’s innocence… even if he’s guilty.
Sound good? Well, it’s fine, but only if you’re able to appreciate the schlocky story for what it is, rather than the Emmy-worthy piece of prestige TV its big names and solemn tone imply. While the series touches on weighty themes — like genetic dispositions toward violence, America’s convoluted justice system, and the internet’s effects on teens — any substantive points being drawn are discarded in favor of shock value, and by the end, it feels like many of these topics were just written in to fill time.
“Defending Jacob” is a plot-first mystery; one where key details are held back in order to preserve twists and stretch the story beyond its means. If told under tighter time constraints — like say, as a two-hour movie — perhaps all the melodrama would’ve coalesced into a suitably intense family thriller. Instead, Apple’s vision is just an elongated “what if” scenario strung out for no discernible purpose other than to scare parents.
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Opening on a disheveled and despondent Andy Barber (Evans), events unfold courtesy of a present-day Andy answering questions under oath about what happened to his family. The ominous nature of his current plight only grows as Andy recounts via flashbacks where the trouble began: with the murder of a high school student. Initially assigned to the case in his role as D.A., Andy spearheads the investigation and keeps coming up empty. Only when students start posting comments online does a suspect emerge, and not the one Andy expected. The evidence is pointing at his son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell), and Andy has to step away from the case in order to protect his kid.
Courtesy of Apple
From there, the Barber family hires a new defense attorney (the great Cherry Jones!), and Andy’s workplace nemesis (played with furious zeal by Pablo Schreiber) ruthlessly builds a case against his former mentor’s son. Helping out from the sidelines, Andy requests files on the case from his former office buddy Duffy (Betty Gabriel), tracks down clues like a bearded Columbo, and follows the letter of the law the whole time. This is Andy’s great purpose. He’s been training for a case like this his whole life, and now he can use his experience in court and at home to save his son’s future.
Many great legal dramas centering on an attorney’s once-in-a-lifetime case use the experience to reflect an important shift in the lawyer’s perspective, approach to his profession, or life in general. But “Defending Jacob” never asks its conflicted attorney to change. Things happen to Andy, but Andy remains who he’s always been: a good guy. He’s a good dad, a good husband, and a good attorney. Countless and constant examples make sure the audience never forgets who to trust, and even when Andy doubts himself, another character is there to tell him how good he really is: When Andy tries to say he would’ve hid a piece of evidence because that’s what a good lawyer does, Duffy tells him, “No, you wouldn’t. You would’ve considered it, but you would’ve ended up doing the right thing.” (Oddly enough, the disdain this series has for journalists is only matched by its disdain for lawyers.)
Such inherent virtue is fine — not every character on TV needs to break bad — but Andy’s lack of development makes his efforts seem more dutiful than desperate. All of his choices are informed by this constant need to be upstanding, even when he’s supposedly being pushed to the edge out of love for his son. One scene meant to illustrate Andy going overboard shows him confronting a suspect by rear-ending their car… but it’s such a polite little tap, there’s barely cause to get out and inspect the damage. While the other characters change ever so slightly in relatively flat arcs, Andy comes off as too perfect for TV. Perhaps it’s to protect the “Captain America” image Chris Evans has cultivated on- and off-screen. Perhaps it’s because Apple wants a mainstream hit and doesn’t trust audiences to follow Evans into a darker, more realistic timeline. Perhaps its just short-sightedness.
Courtesy of Apple
As the family waits for his trial, the typical small town dynamics play out. Prying eyes judge the Barbers every time they go out, friends turn on them, and society’s ultimate scourge, reporters, make their lives a living hell. So much of the action (aka talking) takes place within the Barbers’ Mass(.)-ive McMansion. Family dinners and movie nights provide an idyllic reprieve from the outside world and its worries, made all the more comforting by the clean, uncluttered, and oh-so-spacious home — decorated in neutral shades of white and gray, it’s as though the Barbers designed it with, I don’t know, an Apple store in mind? Even their plain, dark clothes compliment the t-shirt friendly repose offered by the now shuttered Apple centers, while plenty of iPhone ringtones, Facetime calls, and text message dings fill the frames with more sleek and tidy imagery. (This definitely gives “The Morning Show” a run for its money in terms of product placement.)
To its credit, “Defending Jacob” looks great. The full season was directed by Morten Tyldum, who seems to be channeling the shadowy vibes of “Ozark,” but swapping out the murky visuals for sharp definition; whereas Jason Bateman’s Netflix original lives in the muddy waters of its Missouri setting, Tyldum matches the crisp, cutting New England air with clearly delineated blacks. Similarly, Evans is very nice to look at, which is actually helpful when there are so many scenes of Andy doing completely unremarkable things, like carrying a briefcase, sitting in a courtroom, standing in a courtroom, and driving his car. Evans, whose gift of charm extends to the villainous (a la “Knives Out”), snarky (see “Scott Pilgrim v. the World”), and heroic (in…just about everything else), does a stand-up job as the straight man, but for as much as his inherent likability works in his favor, the progress he’s made as an actor over the last decade is largely untapped here. There’s simply not enough to dig into, since he’s always following a simple pattern: react to a wrong and then do what’s right.
“Defending Jacob” saves up enough drama for the final two episodes to make it feel like a substantive event has taken place — enough that you’ll beg to spoil the ending for your friends just to recap the insanity out loud — but when you break it down into parts, there’s not much there. The eight episodes want the audiences to consider whether Jacob is truly capable of murder, without ever explaining why that’s a valuable question. Should we be paying more attention to our kids? Should even perfect parents like Andy think twice about what their family is capable of? Should we take stock in the questionable science conducted in the show (science I can’t talk about without revealing key spoilers)? Are lawyers and journalists really the worst people alive? For a show so devoted to stringing you along for answers, “Defending Jacob” doesn’t leave you with much once it’s over.
“Defending Jacob” premieres its first three episodes Friday, April 24 on Apple TV+. New episodes will be released weekly thereafter.