Apple TV+ is still new at the limited dramatic series game, but if “Defending Jacob” is a harbinger of what’s coming, it’s clear that they’re not only on the right track, but they should stay on it, full steam ahead.
Writer and showrunner Mark Bomback (“Live Free or Die Hard,” “The Art of Racing in the Rain”) and director Morten Tyldum (“Passengers,” “The Imitation Game”) have turned William Landay’s 2012 novel about the crumbling of a tight family after the son is accused of murder into an eight-part potboiler of a series. They’ve gone about it with strong material, concise writing, a risk-taking cast, and have been graced by that often-elusive ingredient: chemistry between all of the actors.
It’s about the Barber family, popular and active community members in the affluent Boston suburb of Newton, Massachusetts. Andy (Chris Evans) is a hard-working, no-nonsense assistant district attorney. His wife Laurie (Michelle Dockery) works at a private institute for abused and traumatized youth. Their 14-year-old son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is popular at school. Life is good, things are smooth, everyone is happy.
The narrative is structured around an investigation process - Andy is being grilled by a different assistant DA, Neal Logiudice (Pablo Schreiber), and the two men appear to be at odds. The story leading up to this scenario is played out in flashback, starting 10 months earlier, with layers being unpeeled as it goes along, leading up to what the investigation is all about.
That would be what happened one day in some thick woods near Andy’s school. Another boy, Ben (Liam Kilbreth), a kid with a reputation for being a bully, is found murdered, a victim of multiple stab wounds. One of Jacob’s fingerprints is found on his clothing, and - it gets worse -
Jacob had previously been seen showing off a prize hunting knife on school grounds.
For reasons that won’t be explained here, Andy, despite his DA boss being uncomfortable about it, gets the case and, along with the help of state trooper Paula Duffy (Betty Gabriel), goes about trying to prove not only that his son didn’t do it, but find out who did.
It’s safe to say that in a series this loaded with twists and turns and new characters popping up - believably - throughout it, those who haven’t read the book are going to be caught off guard by what goes down.
Part of it involves the transformation of the family’s standing in the community. They were once pillars of it, but when Jacob’s name is blackened, even though it’s still only an accusation, they become pariahs. Friends of Andy and Laurie walk away from them; Jacob is shunned at school. Another part of it shows how the happy family unit begins to crumble, with both Andy and Laurie trying not to wonder if their son really did commit the savage crime, and Jacob trying hard to act as if nothing is wrong even though his world is tumbling down around him.
But it’s the third and most intriguing element that’s going to grab viewers and make them keep coming back. With a theme concerning the importance of telling the truth coursing through the script’s veins, it turns out that Andy has been keeping some secrets of his own childhood from his family, from the world, involving his relationship with his estranged father (J.K. Simmons). That leads not only to some of those aforementioned story twists, but also to some of the series’ best scenes (in writing, directing, and acting) between Evans and Simmons.
With the frequent addition of more and more characters - only a couple of them unnecessary - the story gets more and more complicated. The beauty of a limited series is that the story doesn’t have to be crammed into two hours. Characters can be explored, as can their motives and how they’re carried out. “Defending Jacob” makes good use of this luxury, sometimes topping off episodes with cliffhanger endings, sometimes just letting one flow into the next.
Though kudos go out to both Dockery and Martell for their difficult portrayals of what we’re led to believe are sympathetic characters, the heavy lifting is done by Evans, who gets to present multiple sides of Andy, from concerned husband and dad to frustrated husband and dad, and from calm and determined professional lawman to an angry person unsure of his own impulses and capabilities.
It all leads up to a shattering ending of a finely wrought piece of TV drama.
The eight-part “Defending Jacob” premieres on Apple TV+ on April 24.
Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.
Written by Mark Bomback; directed by Morten Tyldum
With Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery, Jaeden Martell, Cherry Jones, Betty Gabriel