Defending Jacob review: Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery anchor this second-rate legal drama from Apple TV+
Sitting through Defending Jacob feels like a joyless predictable episode of Law and Order stretched to series length.
In a strong — but hardly the most subtle — scene of juxtaposition in Defending Jacob, we see young boys and girls getting into the school bus while 14-year-old Jacob (Jaeden Martell) makes his way in a police car to the arraignment hearing for the first-degree murder of his classmate. After all, kids belong in schools and playgrounds, not in courts and prisons.
Based on the eponymous book by William Landay, the new Apple TV+ series brings together Chris Evans (O Captain, My Captain America) and Michelle Dockery (Our Lady Mary Crawley of the Sacred Downton Abbey) as parents trying to save their Holden Caulfield-wannabe son from a murder conviction. So, get ready for an eight-episode-long see-saw ride of middlebrow murder mystery and suburban family melodrama — before the usual courtroom hijinks.
It is a setup you have likely seen a dozen times before: Newton, Massachusetts is like most other suburbs ("boring but safe" as a character puts it). A teenager is found murdered. The first suspect is, as you would expect, the town's sex offender; the second a boy bullied by the dead victim. It's Jacob's taciturn disposition, more than the evidence, that makes him guilty in everyone's eyes. There's reasonable doubt of course. Then comes the usual media circus and trial by public opinion before the actual trial.
Fortunately for Jacob, he's got his dad, assistant district attorney Andy Barber (Evans), working tirelessly to clear his name. But familial conflict creeps in when mom Laurie (Dockery) begins to wonder if her son is really innocent. By the time the trial begins and the loose ends are tidied up, a lot happens to little effect. The resolution too is on the transparent side of tricksy.
Across the eight episodes, creator Mark Bomback (War for the Planet of the Apes, Unstoppable) makes Andy and Laurie, and the parents watching at home, wrestle with some big questions. Does virtuous parenting alone ensure children from corrupting influences? Can parents maintain unconditional love for their children despite criminal behaviour? Shouldn't there be limits to turning a blind eye to children's faults? Should parents bear responsibility for the crimes committed by their children? Ultimately, how well do we really know our loved ones? The answers to these questions are however reduced to cliches like "It is what it is", like numerous characters in a variety of TV shows and films have said. Initially refusing to simplify, even Jacob’s psychiatrist (Poorna Jagannathan) simplifies anyway with an analogy comparing it to Edwin Boring's famous optical illusion "My Wife and My Mother-in-Law", that it is possible to have two radically different perceptions of your child.
Defending Jacob also tackles some key issues relevant to our times, where youth assume multiple identities online, often in contrast to their life offline. Another interesting question the show poses is: Do murderers have a genetic predisposition to kill? Andy is a man afraid of his past, concealing his estranged father's homicidal history from his wife and son. He worries he may have inherited and passed down his father's "murder gene" to his son. So he makes his son submit himself to genetic testing and a psychiatric evaluation.
Hanging up his Captain America costume and shield, Evans gets his suit and tie on to play a public prosecutor who switches sides to help his son. Moreover, Andy must defend his son against a prosecutor (Pablo Schreiber) who learnt the ropes from him. This adds more drama to the proceedings, as Andy begins to make ethical concessions to prove his son's innocence. Unlike Laurie, he refuses to even consider the possibility his son could be guilty. So, he's motivated less by truth, more by parental love, even blinding himself to — and reasoning — some of his son's scandalous behaviour.
Suspended from work due to the optics, Laurie becomes a prisoner in her own house, a pariah shunned by friends and community. In a distressing scene, we see a brief moment of joy on a casual trip to the supermarket ahead of Fourth of July turn into a sour affair when she runs into the mother of the deceased. In another, a friendly chat with a stranger at a diner turns out to be a devious journo looking for a scoop on her family. Parents of criminals already live a life of anger and guilt, struggling to forgive both their children and themselves. The media only put salt on their wounds, by assuming the roles of judge, jury, and executioner even before the charges are laid. The court of public opinion has corrupted the concept of “innocent until proven guilty”, the presumption of innocence which is the bedrock of any legal system.
Evans and Dockery do not boast the best on-screen chemistry. Even when Dockery tries, Evans resists. Working close to the top of his range here, he is more steadfast, wearing his unconditional love like armour. She is more restrained, the sharp angles and rough edges of her performance becoming more visible as the doubt begins to seep in. Meanwhile, Martell has the ability to seem both vicious and vulnerable at the same time. The three charge this unsaturated, dark-toned drama with just enough electricity to keep us intrigued, without offering anything new to consider it for the Best-of-2020 lists. JK Simmons as Andy's imprisoned father is not Vernon Schillinger-crazy (from his Oz days) but more merciful than Terence Fletcher (in Whiplash). Along with Cherry Jones (Nan Pierce in Succession) as Jacob's lawyer, they take this middling material and turn it into passable entertainment.
In a heart-to-heart with his dad, Jacob complains about all the needless metaphors, similes, and analogies in the literature he is forced to read at school. He asks his dad why the authors just do not lay all the cards on the table and just "say what they mean." In contrast, Defending Jacob reveals its cards a little too early, and then reminds you what they are in case you failed to notice them. Sitting through the show thus feels like a joyless predictable episode of Law and Order stretched to series length.
The first three episodes of Defending Jacob premiered today on 24 April on Apple TV+. New episodes will premiere weekly thereafter every Friday.
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