REVIEW: Defending Jacob (2020)

Release Poster – Apple TV+

The following is a review of the Apple TV+ mini-series “Defending Jacob,” — Directed by Morten Tyldum and written by Mark Bomback.

Morten Tyldum and Mark Bomback’s Defending Jacob is a crime mini-series based on the William Landay novel of the same name. The series follows the Barber family — Andy (played by Chris Evans) and Laurie (played by Michelle Dockery) and their teenage son, Jacob (played by Jaeden Martell) — from Newton, Massachusetts. At the outset of the series, Andy Barber, the assistant district attorney, is assigned to prosecute the murder of Ben Rifkin, one of Jacob’s classmates, and he is quick to identify a prime suspect. However, soon Andy is forced to abandon the case when his son is charged with the murder of Ben Rifkin. The Barbers are naturally shocked, and, in the series, they must try to clear their son’s name, find the actual culprit, and endure the harsh spotlight that they, as a family, have suddenly been put under.

Although I haven’t seen everything on the still-relatively-new streaming platform, I think it’s interesting and odd that both M. Night Shyamalan and Tony Basgallop’s Servant and Tyldum and Bomback’s Defending Jacob, two Apple TV+ thriller series about very different mysteries, revolve around families being broken by tragedies. They are both, to a certain extent, shows about a parent’s worst nightmare, except one of the shows is much more realistic than the other. Shyamalan and Basgallop’s supernatural thriller series was obviously very different, as it told a story about a reborn doll and a strange nanny, but, like Defending Jacob, both series are unhurried and overly long.

Although I thought that both shows were engrossing, I have to admit that a part of me thinks that both shows would’ve been better with fewer episodes or, possibly even, as long movies. It is slightly frustrating that the trial at the center of Defending Jacob doesn’t begin until the penultimate episode of the series. But that is probably because the show is more about the ‘a parent’s worst nightmare’-angle, how a parent may feel responsible for the actions of their children, and how media spotlight can break a family, than the actual legal proceedings, even though the show does dedicate a lot of time to trial preparation.

By focusing so heavily on the family drama in a crime thriller series, you ask a lot of the main cast, which, in Defending Jacob, is pretty star-studded, but, thankfully, they are all very convincing. Jaeden Martell, previously known by his father’s surname ‘Lieberher’, plays the titular character, Jacob, and he captures his antisocial but smart character’s traits well. You never really know if you can believe him or not, and his performance is one of the reasons why the series often works. It isn’t a star-making performance, but that is only because Martell has been one of the brightest stars of his acting generation for years now, with notable roles in films such as Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (along with his co-star Chris Evans), Andy Muschietti’s It: Parts I and II, and Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special.

I think that Chris Evans is doing a good job if he is trying to play roles that are very dissimilar from the character that he is so clearly remembered for. Andy Barber, like Ransom Drysdale from Knives Out, is nothing like Captain America. Barber has a dark past, and he is not above getting his hands dirty. I don’t think it is Evans’ best performance, but it is definitely one of his more interesting performances. In general, the cast, which also includes solid performances from Michelle Dockery and J. K. Simmons, is up to scratch.

However, even though Martell, Dockery, and Evans all give commendable performances in the series, sometimes I do think that the writing lets them down. Most notably, Martell’s character, who is described as intelligent for his age, shows a lack of online common sense, but I also think that Chris Evans’ character, who is a highly-regarded assistant district attorney, sometimes acts in ways that I would describe as ‘out-of-character’, though, of course, one might say that he is simply acting illogically because he finds himself in situations that may make him impulsive or irrational. There are also definitely scenes that feel exaggerated or melodramatic. I don’t think it was smart to stretch out Andy Barber’s own investigation as much as has been done here, and, on the flip side, I think that it is a shame that the show doesn’t spend more time with the Rifkin family.

Late in the series, supporting actor J. K. Simmons’ character proposes that Andy Barber has a choice to make. To say any more about that scene would be to spoil the show, but I think it is the series’ best moment. In fact, although the very ending of the series is a little bit too ambiguous, I think the final two episodes were the best of the series, which is, again, too long.

Ultimately, Morten Tyldum and Mark Bomback’s Defending Jacob is a sleek and gloomy but unhurried and overlong family-crime-thriller mini-series. You have probably seen other films or shows like it, and you have probably also seen it been done better before. But even still Defending Jacob is, thanks to its A-list cast, something that I would recommend to current subscribers of Apple TV+. However, it is absolutely not the hit that Apple TV+ needs to be able to compete with major streaming services like Netflix.


– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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