Apple TV+ brings some serious star power to an evocative miniseries about parents suspecting their son of murder.
While few parents would think that their child is perfect, virtually all of them want to believe that their child is fundamentally a good person. The discovery that their child may be capable of something truly heinous is every parent’s nightmare, and the subject of Apple TV+’s latest crime thriller Defending Jacob.
Adapted from William Landay’s novel of the same name, Defending Jacob follows assistant district attorney Andy Barber (Chris Evans, Knives Out) as he investigates the murder of local eighth-grader Ben Rifkin. His life is thrown into turmoil when his 14-year-old son Jacob (Jaeden Martell, also Knives Out) is accused of the crime. Unable to believe that his child is capable of such an act, he begins his own investigation. But delving into the case only raises more doubt than certainty, and begins to add strain on his relationship with both Jacob and his wife Laurie (Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey).
The idea of a parent suspecting their child of being a sociopath is a favorite for the thriller genre, but writer and producer Mark Bomback manages to keep from making the subject feel cliche. Jacob is no Rhoda Penmark or Damien Thorn: there are no scenes of him acting creepy or cruel, nor does Martell play him as such. Even when we discover some rather unsavory aspects of Jacob’s character they are never shown onscreen. He is at times charming, other times he is petulant and irritating. Martell portrays him with a mix of apathy, arrogance, and vulnerability that makes him one of the most realistic portrayals of a young teen I’ve seen on TV.
Martell’s fantastic performance is bolstered by Evans and Dockery, who play off each other’s conflicting energy, giving the family a compelling dynamic. Andy is convinced completely that Jacob is innocent, even when he faces evidence that Jacob has a darker side. This conviction can lead to denial, and Evans gives Andy an underlying anger that comes out when the case isn’t going the way he wants it to.
Conversely, Laurie is more willing to believe that Jacob may be guilty, though she doesn’t want to believe it. Her doubt and her isolation causes her to become anxious and emotional. Dockery manages to escalate this anxiety and despair expertly throughout the show as it looks like the noose is closing around Jacob’s neck. Laurie’s pathos makes Dockery the standout performance in the series.
Like many stories about killer kids, the show dips its toe into the “Nature Vs. Nurture” debate. Andy’s father Billy (JK Simmons, Klaus) was convicted of rape and murder when Andy was only 5, a fact that Andy has kept from his friends and family. This discovery shocks both Jacob and Laurie and on the counsel of their lawyer Joanna (Cherry Jones, The Handmaid’s Tale) they have him tested for a genetic disposition towards violence.
Martell portrays him with a mix of apathy, arrogance, and vulnerability that makes him one of the most realistic portrayals of a young teen I’ve seen on TV.
This question on whether or not Jacob has a disposition towards violent behavior leads to one of the more interesting conflicts in the show. While Jacob is a fairly mild kid now, as a young child he was prone to outburst and reckless behavior that would leave his classmates injured. These incidents are worrying, but not all that unusual for a very young child, but the juxtaposition of Jacob’s violent preschool actions against his currently passive disposition gives the show a continuing mystery that will keep the audience eager for the next episode.
As far as adaptations go, Defending Jacob is a fairly accurate one. While the show moves the setting from 2007 to the present day and gender swaps some major characters, the story hews close to Landay’s plot. However, Bomback makes the wise decision to utilize TV’s ability to allow multiple points of view. The novel is framed with Andy’s testimony in court and the narrative never strays from his point of view. While the show begins with Andy in the courtroom, he’s not the one giving testimony. Thus we are able to see things from the point of view of Laurie and Jacob, as well as Jacob’s classmates, which helps ramp up the drama and more properly foreshadow later events.
In fact, the first two episodes are both the most book accurate and the least interesting. Much like the book, episodes follow Andy almost exclusively as he investigates Ben’s murder up until Jacob is charged with the crime. The investigation prior to Jacob’s arrest is slow moving, but while the book is able to keep the reader’s interest with Andy’s dialogue (which brings you into his world without a lot of action), the lack of action in a TV setting makes the opening episodes feel slow. The series begins to pick up pace once Jacob is arrested and the story begins to branch out from just Andy’s perspective, but it’s a shame the beginning of such an interesting story has such a slow start.
This slowness is compounded by the show’s tone. Defending Jacob is eight hours of pure gloom. Well made gloom, perhaps even entertaining gloom, but gloom nonetheless. Obviously one wouldn’t expect a show about a child’s murder to be lighthearted, but watching the episodes one after another was taxing. Everything from the story, to the cinematography, to the acting choices, to the color grading give the story an air of hopelessness that can make for a heavy viewing experience. The result is a limited series that is best ingested in bits as opposed to binging the series in an entire sitting.
Watching Defending Jacob left me feeling like the characters: ambivalent and unsure. The cast is great, the story is compelling, and while it starts slow, the pace eventually picks up and doesn’t drag too much once it does. Still, while I wanted to see it through to the end, it was a hard show to watch. Perhaps its dour tone would have bothered me less if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, but that’s just the world we live in. As such, I would say that Defending Jacob is worth a watch, just be aware of what you’re getting into.
Defending Jacob hits Apple TV+ on April 24th.