Apple TV+ unveils their latest shiny, star-studded original series with Defending Jacob, and this time, they’ve got an Avenger. Based on William Landay’s mystery novel of the same name, the new thriller series from creator Mark Bomback (War for the Planet of the Apes) and director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) features MCU superstar Chris Evans as Andy Barber, an assistant D.A. who winds up overseeing his nightmare case when his 14-year-old son (Jaeden Martell) is accused, arrested, and tried for the murder of a classmate.
It’s a good hook, and with an impressive creative team behind the camera and one (1) ex-Captain America in the lead, Defending Jacob has all the glossy credentials that have come to define the Apple TV+ originals. However, also like the rest of their content programming so far, it doesn’t quite carve out a clear identity as compulsory viewing.
When we meet the Barbers, Andy is an up-and-coming assistant D.A., respected in his field, liked by his colleagues, and loved by his family; Laurie (Michelle Dockery), his wife, who works at a school for abused and traumatized youths, and Jacob, their son, your average lanky, semi-angsty teen. They do a passable Hollywood version of an average family (if you can ignore Evans’ still-bulging MCU muscles.) They live in a beautiful house. They have a beautiful life. Or so it seems. One day, Andy’s dedicated pursuit of justice leads him to a dead body in the woods; a teenage boy from his son’s school, and while the case first leads them to a local sex offender, investigations at the school quickly make Jacob the prime suspect and the Barbers’ beautiful life starts to unravel.
That narrative is bookended by scenes set in the future, where we see a downtrodden Andy Barber on the stand in a mysterious second trial, narrating his family’s downfall, and over the next 8 episodes, we watch their family fray, furrow, and utterly fall apart. Secrets are revealed. Sanity is questioned. Inlaws are more nightmarish than you could imagine. Somehow, Defending Jacob also makes room for old-school gangsters, violent pornography, and a not just a little bit silly subplot about the “murder gene”. And yet, somehow, will all that gas in the tank, the wild and uneven twists of the story often feel like they’re running on empty.
Fortunately, what Defending Jacob too often lacks in richness of story, it makes up for in richness of performance. Evans once again reminds audiences that he’s a talented performer well beyond the confines of his decade in the MCU. From his breakout role in Not Another Teen Movie to standout turns in films like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Sunshine, and Snowpiercer, Evans has a career proving he’s capable of more than his classic leading man good looks. He’s commanding as ever here, channeling that same endearing, trustworthy wholesomeness that made him the perfect Cap and the internet’s favorite, most handsome voice of reason. The series also adds a new type to his resume – it’s his first time playing a father, and those very same qualities make him a natural fit for going full dad-mode. If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that the story forces the character to be more one-note than he should be. The idea of a justice-driven man who has to weigh his scruples against his love for his son is rife with opportunity, but Defending Jacob largely leaves that ground unmined, particularly when some later reveals set the stage for darker, more interesting nuances that never get explored.
As for the rest of the cast, Dockery gets more of an arc but less to do. She’s committed and capable in the role, but we never get much of a sense of Laurie beyond the trauma, and that trauma is exhaustingly framed, again and again, in relentless close-ups of ever-widening saucer eyes. Martell is outstanding in the title role, expertly toeing a line between a sympathetic and scared kid who’s out of his depth and the ever-present menace that there might be more lurking beneath the surface. Do you feel bad for him or are you terrified of him? Who can say! It’s a razor-wire and Martell makes expert work of teetering, just so, from one side of it to the other.
The supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches. J.K. Simmons, as always, levels up every scene he’s in (there aren’t nearly enough, but we’ll take what we can get). The great Cherry Jones is magnetic as Jacob’s defense attorney, reminding once again how rarely the theater legend gets her due on screen. Get Out breakout Betty Gabriel is solid as Andy’s conflicted former colleague, who consistently finds herself stuck between a friend and hard place. And Pablo Schreiber makes for a perfectly loathsome antagonist as the smarmy and showy prosecuting attorney, Neil Loguidice (last name pronounced Lo-Judas, which gets increasingly humorous with each new act of manipulation and backstabbery).
No small thanks to that knockout ensemble, Defending Jacob absorbing for much of its run, though the compelling drama tends to come in fits, surrounded by lulls, side-tangents, and red herrings that too often seem to lead nowhere. In part, it’s obvious that’s because the material simply doesn’t fill an eight-episode run, at least not as it was adapted. There are strong bones here, from the creative team to the source material, there’s just way too much padding for a distinct form to ever take shape. Ultimately, Defending Jacob suffers from a tonal inconsistency because it never seems to chose what kind of series it wants to be, introducing audacious reveals before backpedaling toward a somber stance. That makes the plot feel like it functions in starts and stops, zooming towards spicy twists before lagging in the weeds of unearned, protracted stretches of pensiveness. Never more so than with its grand, chaotic finale reveals, which are by far the most audacious of the bunch, but also the least satisfying.
What’s more, any fan of paperback thrillers and courtroom procedurals may find themselves with a sense of Deja Vu as Defending Jacob hits familiar beats from the favorites of the genre. There’s strong Grisham DNA, commentary about media speculation and public scrutiny during murder trials that feels like a lightweight Gone Girl, and so on. It’s a bit too familiar and polished; engaging and handsomely-made though it may be. On the upside, it is very handsomely made. Sharp and stark, full of minimalist design, shot in a Fincher-eqsue steely blue-grey. That Apple money is on the screen, and it is showing (and so are those iPhones, which pop up in just about every other scene).
But Defending Jacob wants to have it both ways: to lean into the schlocky thrills of a pulpy paperback thriller while also being prestige TV. Big Little Lies proved that it could be done, but Big Little Lies Season 2 likewise proved just how unique it was to catch that lightning in a bottle. And where the HBO sensation felt like an insightful, sordid glimpse behind the glamorous curtain of polished elite society, too much of Defending Jacob feels familiar and expected. If there’s one thing you don’t want a mystery to be, it’s over-familiar. Nothing saps the thrills from a sharp story twist quite like being able to see the tracks before the swerve.