If Apple TV+ is slightly on the back foot in the war of the streaming services it’s not for want of trying. With this latest crime drama it has definitely brought out the big guns – and it’s really paid off in terms of quality. On a more widely subscribed service, Defending Jacob could easily become the next hot button series garnering buzz like Bodyguard or Apple Tree Yard.
Based on the best selling novel by William Landay, Defending Jacob is a clever and complex courtroom drama packed with ambiguities and moral quandaries that makes some smart deviations from the novel and adding extra layers of tension in the best possible way.
Framed around a court hearing to determine whether or not an unspecified case should be pursued, Defending Jacob stars Captain America’s Chris Evans as Andy Barber, an assistant district attorney whose 14-year-old son Jacob (Jaeden Martell, formerly Liebeher, star of the recent IT movies) has been accused of murdering a classmate who is found stabbed to death in a park. Evidence is circumstantial, but nonetheless damning, and the court of public opinion in their small town isn’t on the Barbers’ side. Initially staunch defenders of their son, Andy’s wife Laurie (Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery) is desperate to protect Jacob from neighborhood gossip, while Andy calls in favors with police and launches his own investigations to try to find the real culprit.
This is a million miles from a straight whodunnit, though. More, it’s a family drama and a psychological thriller pitting Andy’s absolute unwavering belief in his child’s innocence with Laurie’s creeping doubt as she recalls odd childhood behavior, and Jacob’s disturbing internet habits are uncovered. Delving into ideas of whether genetics can hold clues to a person’s propensity for violence (the “murder gene” which is mentioned in the show is a real thing) there are multiple threads to unpick over the eight episode run. Each episode is just shy of an hour and each one brings new revelations, keeping you guessing right up to the brutal and shocking finale.
Evans expertly embodies the optimistic superhero patriarch whose demons he keeps consciously hidden, while Dockery is fractured and pained as a mother who needs answers from her disaffected and distant child. After standout turns in Midnight Special, IT, and Knives Out Martell is fast becoming one of the most interesting actors of his generation, here carefully treading the line between psychopath and your average surly teen. The supporting cast is terrific too, with JK Simmons as Andy’s dodgy dad, Get Out’s Betty Gabriel as the officer torn between friendship and justice, and Snowtown’s Daniel Henshall as the local paedo who could be a good fit for the crime.
Morten Tyldum, who made Headhunters and The Imitation Game directs the entire series, playing expertly with points of view allowing him to steer the audience through a roller coaster of twists and turns. The whole show looks slick and cinematic, lensed by Game Of Thrones regular Jonathan Freeman, while the script, written by Mark Bomback who co-wrote the Dawn of– and War for the Planet of the Apes movies is spot on. Perfectly structured to deliver revelation after revelation right up to the end, it’s deliciously infuriating and ambiguous, with a gut punch closer it would be hard to see coming, leaving you with much to mull over.
With resonances of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, the movie adaptation of which came out a year before Defending Jacob was published, this is an intelligent, thought provoking thriller that delves into the psychology of family and heredity as well as working as an effective legal drama. One of the best things to hit Apple TV+ so far, it deserves much attention and debate – we can only hope it finds its audience.
Episodes 1 – 3 of Defending Jacob are available to stream on Apple TV+ from Friday April 24, with subsequent episodes arriving each week.