Defending Jacob, the new Apple TV+ star vehicle for Chris Evans, does more than alright for itself in some ways. It’s essentially a serviceable and extremely expensive-looking version of legal and psychological thrillers that we’ve seen permutations of many times already. Think We Need To Talk About Kevin (where a parent worries endlessly over whether they raised a killer) crossed with Primal Fear (where an attorney crosses ethical lines to get his client off the murder hook), but the key variation here is that Evans plays both the parent of an accused murderer and an attorney. As such, he’s torn between unconditional love and his drive for justice. This dilemma presents opportunities for endlessly interesting twists, but oh boy, does this show take its time to get there.
There’s something to be said for a nice, slow burn. However, this approach requires enough character development to keep viewers intrigued while they wait for stuff to go down. That’s where Defending Jacob‘s eight-episode structure does it no favors. The project holds itself out, according to the synopsis, as a “character-driven thriller,” but it actually gets wrapped up in holding necessary details back for so long that it squishes its own character development. There’s a cast full of fantastic actors here, all raring to go, but the series simply teases viewers for so long that it never reaches full potential.
Notably, the supporting cast is stellar. J.K. Simmons (always great) and Pablo Schreiber (often suitably smarmy) are well-suited to their antagonistic functions. Betty Gabriel shines as a detective in an unenviable position, while Cherry Jones crushes her defense attorney role. When it comes to the main trio, Jaeden Martell plays the accused, 14-year-old Jacob, in just disturbing enough of a way to make viewers wonder about him. Michelle Dockery is fine as the mom, and Evans continues to prove his range as an assistant DA who not only has his personal but professional life turned upside down, even though perhaps the production should have worked a little harder to cloak those muscles from inevitably popping out. Maybe some bulky sweaters would have helped, but I suppose that Chris Meloni had fairly sizeable guns on Law and Order: SVU, so I can look past that issue. And the muscles do help paint the picture of a perfect family, which must either withstand immense public scrutiny or begin to show cracks.
More about the story: Defending Jacob fashions itself from William Landay’s 2012 novel of the same name. The teenage suspect in this story does a lot of typically unwise teenage things, and the series does a decent enough job of making the audience waver between deciding whether he’s capable of killing. Likewise, his parents struggle through several phases of self-torture as walls close in around them, although the script doesn’t dive anywhere we haven’t seen before with a family in this position. Really, it’s the little things that add up to feeling like this show squanders chances for weaving complexity. For instance, mom jogging through the neighborhood (for a long time) or chopping vegetables (in a normal way, simply chopping them) only fuels story inertia while telling us nothing about her psyche. She’s somber, but we know this already without languid stretches that water down the story. This may disappoint audiences who gravitate toward dark thrillers, which worries me more than a bleak miniseries arriving during bleak times. People realize what they’re signing up for when they push the play button on a legal thriller, but Defending Jacob plays out too slowly to deliver as promised.
With this miniseries, the biggest issue is that the target audience will probably feel like they’ve watched an eight-hour version of a network TV procedural for final reveals that go nowhere novel and don’t yield much of an emotional payoff. The show’s overpadded (and diluted with an abundance of red herrings) to a fault for the mystery that the story hopes to support. By the time the last few episodes roll around, the wildly chaotic final turns feel unearned without an aforementioned slow burn to get to that point.
Overall, Defending Jacob is a puzzling project to behold, since there’s so much talent involved, including director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), yet the final product feels uneven and bloated, which contrasts strangely with the miniseries’ visual design (full of sharp edges and minimalist decor at every turn). Add that to the inconsistency of schlocky subject matter and arguable junk science sprinkled into a project that genuinely can’t seem to decide whether it’s aiming for prestige TV or not. One could do much worse than watching Defending Jacob, but I can’t help but feel that the story would have been better suited as a lean-and-mean feature film. As it stands, there’s not enough of a fresh approach to this tale to justify an eight-hour time investment.
The first three episodes of Apple TV+’s ‘Defending Jacob’ will premiere on Friday, April 24. Subsequent episodes will drop each Friday.