This review originally published on April 13, 2020
Like many of you, I’m an elementary school teacher now. Not a particularly good one, mind you. Honestly I should have been fired weeks ago. But I’ve learned a lot recently about writing fourth grade persuasive essays during these quarantine times. What you need is a big idea to launch your argument. Here’s mine: The shows on Apple TV+ are never as good as I want them to be or, frankly, as they should be.
With the exception of the exquisite Little America, Apple TV+ series are the television equivalent of a Monet painting—beautiful from far away with their big name stars (Jennifer Aniston! Reese Witherspoon! Octavia Spencer!) and high-end production. But when you get closer, the shows turn out to be a series of pretty dots, fine enough but nothing special. At best a passable way to spend an hour or two, at worst an elaborate product placement ad. (Every single character uses a Mac and an iPhone).
The latest entry into this oeuvre is Defending Jacob, an eight-episode series based on the 2012 novel of the same name by William Landay. Assistant District Attorney Andy Barber (Chris Evans) and his wife Laurie (Michelle Dockery) are living a lovely upper middle-class life in the wealthy suburb of Newton, Massachusetts when a classmate of their son is found murdered in a nearby park. Their shock and grief are compounded when their 14-year-old son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is arrested for murder.
The show flits back and forth between the events unfolding before and right after the murder, and Barber being interrogated on the stand 10 months later by his former colleague/frenemy Neal Logiudice (Pablo Schreiber). “I was protecting him from his own stupidity. I was being a father,” he bellows.
Clues are dropped along the way. “I know you think you know Jacob but you don’t,” Jacob’s classmate Derek tells Andy. Various red herring suspects pop up over the course of the episodes, but none compelling enough to truly pique your curiosity.
That’s really too bad, because Evans and Dockery are fantastic. Dockery, in particular, is captivating as the mom who wants to believe her son is innocent but begins to second guess every single parenting decision she’s ever made. “But what if … I just didn’t look closely enough?” she wonders. Evans, blessedly not trying to lean in to his native Massachusetts accent, tracks as the father who thinks this is a problem he can solve with dogged determination and righteous indignation. Some scenes are truly affecting, as you see the full impact of what having their son arrested for murder does to their everyday life. Laurie loses her friends, her job, her sense of self. She’s forced to go to the grocery store right when it opens so she doesn’t run into anyone (this obviously had more of impact when the series was filmed than it does now). She looks longingly at the display for a July 4th barbeque, knowing that these simple pleasures are no longer things she and her family can enjoy.
As the title character, Martell is terrific. First of all he looks like an actual eighth grader, which is a huge help (I’m so glad that TV has moved past the adults-as-teenagers phase of casting). Jacob is sullen and moody and doesn’t do anything to make himself look guilty. He also doesn’t do anything to make himself look not guilty. Like many teenagers, he’s an enigma his parents are desperate to crack.
The stellar cast is rounded out with Cherry Jones as Jacob’s defense attorney and J.K. Simmons as Andy’s dad. Patrick Fischler, usually more of a funny man, is particularly moving as the devastated father of the murdered boy. The series was also shot in and around Newton lending the setting authenticity (I’m always happy when shows set in Boston are actually filmed in Boston).
The novel was a gripping, stay-up-way-too-late-to-read page turner. The series, not so much. Even though the eight-episode length is much shorter than most TV shows, it’s probably still two episodes too long. Director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) has an eye for gorgeous aerial shots. The show looks amazing. I had full-on kitchen envy during every single scene that takes place in the Barber home. But it’s also languid. The camera follows Laurie for too long on her morning jog, and is extremely fond of gazing on Evans’ furrowed brow (aren’t we all to be honest?). But the pacing takes away any urgency that is inherent in the storyline. The shocking reveals are way too drawn out. The result is a murder mystery you can put down.
Back to my big idea. All the ingredients are in place to make Defending Jacob one of the year’s best shows. Instead it’s an average outing into an already crowded medium. And that’s kind of indefensible.
The first three episode of Defending Jacob premiere April 24 on Apple TV+. A new episode premieres every Friday after that.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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