Director(s): Morten Tyldum
Writer(s): Mark Bomnack, William Landay
Composer: Atli Orvarsson
Starring: Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery, Jaeden Martell, Cherry Jones, Pablo Schreiber, J.K Simmons, Betty Gabriel, Sakina Jaffrey
Distributor: Apple TV
Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Defending Jacob is an American television series based on the novel of the same name. The series was created and written by Mark Bomback and produced by Apple TV+. In the fall of 2018, Apple TV+ announced an eight episode adaptation of William Landay’s 2012 crime novel. Apple also announced the series would be executive produced by Chris Evans and directed by Morten Tyldum. It was also announced Evens would star in the leading role.
In the spring of 2019, Jaeden Martell (IT) and Michelle Dockey (Downton Abbey) joined the cast of the Apple TV+ crime drama. In March of 2020, Oscar Award winning J.K. Simmons’ involvement was revealed. Apple TV+’s Defending Jacob premiered its first three episodes on April 24th, 2020 to overall positive reviews. Evens and the entire cast was praised for their moody performances and Tyldum’s directorial tone. The series achieved a Rotten Tomato critic Score of 72% with an audience score of 89%. Metacritic scores the series 6.5 out of 100, while IGN rates the crime drama an 8 out of 10. This is one of Chris Evans’ highest profile projects post-Marvel Cinematic Universe, and was mostly well received. Defending Jacob has become one of the most popular shows on Apple’s new streaming service.
Spiritual Content: Religion plays a very small role in the show.
Violence: Although the series’ focus surrounds the murder of a teenager, the show has very little violence.
Language/Crude Humor: Foul and strong language is used throughout the series.
Sexual Content: The series has no glaring sexual encounters to note.
Drug/ Alcohol Use: Aside from an occasional glass of wine, alcohol is rarely witnessed.
Other Negative Themes: Pedophilia is a topic explored in the series, but is done in the context of motivation for murder.
Positive Themes: A family’s bond throughout a traumatic experience is a highlight of the series.
Defending Jacob follows the Barber family who reside in the peaceful town of Newton, Massachusetts. They are the typical American family, consisting of husband Andy Barber played by Chris Evens (Captain America: The First Avenger, Knives Out), wife Laurie Barber played by Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and 14 year-old Jacob Barber played by Jaeden Martell (IT and Knives Out).
The suburban town of Newton is rocked by the news of the violent death of Ben Rifkin, who’s body was discovered stabbed to death in a nearby park. As the town’s assistant district attorney, Andy is assigned to prosecute the murder of the young middle schooler. Along with Detective Pam Duffy (Get Out’s Betty Gabriel), Andy interviews classmates of the deceased. As the investigation continues, the focus turns to a convicted sexual predator living in the town of Newton. Before further evidence could be collected pointing toward the sexual predator, online messages on social media begin to appear accusing Andy’s son Jacob of the gruesome murder.
Curious, Andy searches Jacob’s room and discovers a knife in the drawer of his night stand. Andy and Laurie confront Jacob about the knife, and Jacob denies any wrong doing. As the investigation continues, Andy is called into the District Attorney’s office and informed Jacob’s finger print was discovered on the body. Andy is also informed he is being pulled off the case, as Jacob has become the prime suspect for the murder. Andy hires defense attorney Joanne Klein (Cherry Jones of The Handmaid’s Tale and 24), whom he often opposes in court. Now, suspended district attorney Andy and defense attorney Joanne find themselves on the same side of the courtroom defending Jacob.
Defending Jacob is a drama-filled mystery that is wonderful acted and expertly directed. The performances are the true stand-out. For the last ten years, Chris Evens has been the world’s Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe where he is the goodie-two-shoes boy scout whose every decision is noble and honorable. Evens breaks out of this role he has inhabited for a decade and exhibits a polar opposite performance in Defending Jacob.
Evens takes on a different role as an emotional, brooding, and tormented father. Alongside Michelle Dockery, Evens and his co-star portray a realistic, grounded performance of a husband and wife being torn apart as they and their son are drug through the mud of the public eye. Jaeden Martell excellently portrays an emotionally detached teenager whose world has been turned upside down as an accused murderer. The rest of the supporting cast rounds out the amazing performances in this crime drama.
Defending Jacob also stands out visually. As the series’ cinematographer, Jonathan Freeman, along with the direction of Morten Tyldum, displays a dark yet beautiful tone. Although the series has a cloudy, muted tone throughout, the use of color, shadows, and contrast is a visual representation of the darkness shrouded over the traumatized town and the clouds that hang over the Barber family.
While the series is a pleasure visually and the performances are stellar, the same cannot be said for the writing. Though the writing and overall story of Defending Jacob is serviceable, it lacks a punch towards the finale. The first two-thirds of the series is fascinating and the world building is pleasurable and engaging, but the series grinds to a halt at times and becomes laborious to complete. Subverting expectations is a common writing trope which has been used more often in contemporary storytelling. This writing style can be fulfilling if done correctly; however, it can fail miserably if executed poorly. Unfortunately, Defending Jacob is the later case.
Defending Jacob is a story about what a family goes though when faced with horrific public scrutiny. At its core, this mystery crime drama is a story about family. The performances are a stand out. Evens, Dockery, and Martell carry this heavily-toned series on their shoulders with ease. The cinematography is artistic and full of drama. Although there are some blatant pacing issues which makes the series drag, its direction is generally positive. Aside from an unfulfilling story and pacing problems, the series is by and large a win for Apple’s new streaming service.
The Bottom Line
Aside from some blatant pacing issues which make the series drag, its direction and performances are great. Generally, the series is a win for Apple's new streaming service.