You've probably seen Defending Jacob before, which is to say that the Apple TV+ limited series feels like every other legal drama you've already seen. Created by Mark Bomback and based on the book of the same name by William Landay, the show hits all the familiar beats of a classic murder investigation, right down to the media frenzy, dramatic outbursts, and the uncomfortably quiet moments in which characters consider if it's possible the person they thought they knew was actually capable of the crime of which they're accused. It is not a terrible show, but it adds little to nothing to set itself apart from the rest of the genre, so it is also hard to classify it as good.
The eight-episode series stars Chris Evans (who is also an executive producer) as Andy Barber, an assistant district attorney and conflicted father who must choose between his sense of justice and protecting his only son, the titular Jacob (Knives Out's Jaeden Martell), when he is accused of murdering a classmate. The role of Andy was aged down for the former Marvel star, and while it's biologically possible for someone in their late 30s to have a child in their teens, the relationship between Andy and Jacob feels too strained to be believable. Every "bud" or "buddy" out of Evans' mouth feels awkward, as if it's the first time the words have ever been spoken between the father and son.
This problem isn't exclusive to Evans and Martell, though. It extends to Michelle Dockery's Laurie, Jacob's concerned mother and Andy's wife. Despite the actors' best efforts to sell themselves as a loving family who had a normal routine and fruitful relationships prior to the day Jacob was arrested and their world was thrown into turmoil, the Barbers are never believable as a family unit, which is a problem for a show about a family thrust into the middle of a murder investigation. The fact the show wastes an opportunity in Episode 6 — the show's best and most gif-able hour — to dive deeper into Laurie's character and her conflicted feelings over her son and his potential for murder doesn't help.
Beyond these shortcomings, the show is also simply too dark, and I mean that literally. Every frame is shaded in a dark gray, likely an attempt to convey a visual example of the bleakness of a story about a teen accused of murder and the emotional fallout that ensues. But in reality, it just makes everything feel cold and dead, like the lifeless body that started it all. The fact the events depicted in the series are supposed to take place in the spring and summer in Massachusetts — a time of rebirth when nature should be alive and thriving — makes the gloomy, monochromatic color scheme even more jarring.
Making matters worse is the fact the darkness level of some scenes actually limits viewers' ability to see the actors, and while it admittedly feels shallow to complain about not being able to see the bearded jawline of Chris Evans, no one is going to watch a TV show they can't see. And speaking strictly from a business standpoint, Apple is likely banking on Evans' fans — his decade-long stint as Captain America has garnered him a global fanbase — to purchase subscriptions to watch the show. So he's arguably the biggest draw (apologies to Cherry Jones and J.K. Simmons, who portray Jacob's lawyer and grandfather, respectively, and are easily the best part of the show), but his fans won't even be able to see him in some of the show's pivotal scenes.
And yet despite all these problems, the show remains completely watchable in much the same way most legal dramas are watchable. Although the story is stretched out over eight episodes when four or five would be more than enough, we still stick around because of our innate curiosity and desire to find out the truth. Did Jacob do it? Is he actually capable of murder? And what does it mean for Andy and Laurie if he did? Bomback made changes to Landay's original story while adapting Defending Jacob for TV in order to keep book readers on their toes and give them a reason to tune in, and while I'm not entirely sure the ending is as successful as the novel's ending, it's an interesting choice that will leave fans with some questions of their own.
Defending Jacob's first three episodes are now streaming on Apple TV+. Subsequent episodes will debut weekly.
TV Guide Rating: 2.5/5