Boxset Tuesday: Defending Jacob (Apple TV+)

A solid, but unremarkable piece of prestige television

Michelle Dockery, Jaeden Martell and Chris Evans in Defending Jacob
Michelle Dockery, Jaeden Martell and Chris Evans in Defending Jacob

In the UK: Available on Apple TV+

Defending Jacob is one of those shows that you can only imagine is intended more as a statement piece than as a draw for your fledging streaming service. A ‘prestige TV’ mini-series adaptation of William Landay’s novel of the same name, with an all star cast that includes Chris Evans (Captain America), Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey, Good Behavior) and JK Simmons (Counterpart, Whiplash), it’s a solid meat-and-two-veg legal drama that provides a perfectly reasonable number of thrills without anything remarkable ever happening.

As such, it feels more like Apple saying: “This is a high-quality, but unchallenging show for what we imagine are normal people. Don’t worry, guys – it’s all going to be good stuff here, but it’s not all going to be liberal stuff like The Morning Show, challenging stuff like Servant or amazing, mind-blowing stuff like See… What do you mean See was awful?”

The clue is in the title

The first three episodes, partly told in flashback through grand jury proceedings, see Evans playing an assistant district attorney in a small town. Together with his charity worker wife (Dockery), they’re raising their perfectly normal if socially awkward son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) in reasonable harmony, going through all the same sorts of issues as anyone else raising a teenage boy in a small American town.

Then the whole community is shocked when someone in Jacob’s year is found murdered. Evans is assigned the case, and quickly hones in on a local sex criminal (Daniel Henshall) as a prime suspect.

However, soon, there are whisperings among the kids of Jacob’s year that maybe it was Evans’ son who was responsible. Before you know it, evidence is starting to mount up against Jacob, forcing Evans to have to… well, you can guess from the title.

What it says on the tin

Given that set-up, the need for ambiguity to stretch the story out to the requisite number of episodes and the usual following of ‘the hero’s journey‘, you can probably map out everything that happens in Defending Jacob‘s first few episodes at least. Even though Jacob is ‘innocent until proven guilty’, the police, media, victim’s parents, employers, waitresses and probably otters and local farmyard animals all believe Jacob is guilty. They therefore go through all the standard tropes of such dramas, with the requisite libellous graffiti going up on walls, people losing their jobs, social media posts being written et al to make the family Evans’ life even harder.

A slight twist, revealed in episode three, is that Evans’s dad (Simmons) (spoiler alert) is currently in prison for murdering a kid, prompting everyone to wonder if there’s a ‘murder gene’ being passed down from grandfather to son . It’s the stupidest part of the show, but then people are stupid, so maybe it’s realistic, even if it’s an extraordinarily improbably coincidence.

Look, we can act, all right

As well as a statement piece by Apple, Defending Jacob is a statement piece by most of the cast as well. Evans has obvious been in Marvel movies for the best part of the decade, but cast your mind back and he used to be in far more varied fare – and this is his attempt to remind everyone that he’s an actor, not just a jaw, muscles and ‘America’s arse’. Given the role is so little of a stretch, however, being mostly him looking pained and being fatherly, I wouldn’t say he’s 100% successful in his efforts, but it’s a valiant effort at least.

Meanwhile, Dockery is trying to prove to Americans she can do American accents (seeing as no one watched Good Behavior) and can be ‘ordinary woman’, not just posh or femme fatale. This is less demanding, so she’s more successful than Evans in her efforts, but nevertheless requires her to go through the usual motions of the hero (not heroine’s) journey, by being unsupportive, generally annoyed at Evans for not breaking all the rules, et al.

Boosting both their efforts at showing their acting chops are a surrounding cast of top character actors, including Pablo Schreiber (The Wire) as Evans’ former work colleague now prosecuting Jacob, Cherry Jones (24) as Jacob’s defence lawyer, Sakina Jaffrey (Timeless) as Evan’s boss and – in future episodes, assuming I didn’t miss her in the first three – Leighton Meester (Gossip Girl).

Defending Defending Jacob

Nevertheless, despite the obvious construction of it all, Defending Jacob is still a pretty decent watch. I was interested in the characters, the central mystery – did Jacob do it or didn’t he? – is reasonably compelling and it’s hard not to empathise with the family’s plight, thanks to the cast’s best efforts. The production values are high, with some attractive cinematography and location shooting, plus being an Apple show, they do actually mock up Apple tech pretty well.

That’s also part of a wider, pleasing understanding of social media and technology. We’re no longer in an age of TV drama that just about remembers mobile phones and that people can do more than make calls with them – the show effectively integrates them into the action without making it too obviously an iPhone/MacBook product placement affair.

And, more sadly, it’s also aware that this is an age when children at school need to be taught ‘duck and cover’.

Jacob’s ladder

The first three episodes of Defending Jacob are promising enough and solid enough for me to want to watch more, at least. I don’t suspect the show will ultimately do a We Need to Talk About Kevin, but actually, that could be an option and there’s reasonable mileage in its examination of trial by social media, the media, the mob et al.

If you’re the kind of person who likes John Grisham books, I think you’ll like Defending Jacob, too. Just don’t get expecting

TMINE third-episode verdict

⭐⭐⭐⭐

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