Defending Jacob finally justifies the existence of Apple TV+ [Review]

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Chris Evans, Jaeden Martell and Michelle Dockery portray a family fighting suspicion in Defending Jacob.
Chris Evans, Jaeden Martell and Michelle Dockery portray a family fighting suspicion in Defending Jacob.
Photo: Apple TV+

With a hot cast and a true-crime sheen, Defending Jacob is one of the most highly anticipated Apple TV+ series so far. It’s based on a best-selling novel. It’s helmed by an Oscar-nominated director. And the first three episodes arrived Friday, primed for a literally captive audience seeking its latest obsession.

Apple calls its fledgling streaming service “the new home for the world’s most creative storytellers.” And for the first time, Apple TV+ has delivered a show that lives up to the hype — at least judging by the first three episodes.

Defending Jacob: First 3 episodes review

Despite the aforementioned pedigree, there was reason to be concerned that Defending Jacob might be another waste of time in the vein of overwritten shows like See and The Morning Show.

Lead actor Chris “Captain America” Evans hasn’t had much chance to prove himself able to carry a dramatic feature on the strength of his dramatic bonafides alone. Add to that director Morten Tyldum. Despite an Oscar nod for 2014’s forgettable The Imitation Game, Tyldum hasn’t made anything worth watching since grimy 2011 thriller Headhunters.

And then there’s the trap of Boston-set crime dramas. Actors — especially awards-ready beauties like Evans, Michelle Dockery and series regulars Betty Gabriel, Daniel Henshall and Pablo Schreiber — have a troubling tendency to swing for the fences when doing characters from Boston.

Just look at The Fighter, Edge of Darkness or The Departed. Not a subtle performance in the pack. Imagine my surprise when no one shows up with elongated vowels to congratulate cousin Tommy on making parole in time for the Red Sox to hit the playoffs in Defending Jacob.

Knives Out reunion

Jaeden Martell plays the titular Jacob on his way to receive his titular defense in Defending Jacob.
Jaeden Martell plays the titular Jacob on his way to receive his titular defense in Defending Jacob.
Photo: Apple TV+

Evans plays assistant district attorney Andy Barber, whose life is upended when his son, Jacob (Martell, reuniting with Evans after Rian Johnson’s Knives Out), is accused of killing a handsome bully at his high school in Newton, Massachusetts. At first, Andy lobbies to take charge of the case. But then his teen son is arrested on suspicion. Andy’s wife, Laurie (Dockery), is ostracized by her friends and co-workers. To add insult to injury, Andy’s one-time protégé, rival attorney Neal Logiudice (Pablo Schreiber), gets the case.

Everything about Defending Jacob centers on lingering doubts about the things we once knew. Andy and Laurie can’t even take comfort in believing Jacob is innocent. Laurie’s arc, in particular, revolves around beginning to doubt everything about her reality that used to comfort her. Andy, aware that the family will face increased scrutiny, starts revealing things about his past to her that put their life in an uncomfortable new light.

As Laurie looks back on Jacob’s childhood, she no longer sees the beautiful boy she raised, but a murderer in training. It’s only too believable, given how the culture treats criminals, and especially given how many shows sensationalize those responsible in every imaginable fashion.

Evans is nicely restrained in the flashbacks to the beginning of the case, and rumpled and impatient during the glimpses we get of the trial. Straining for neither gravitas nor grit, he succeeds in the middle ground he creates. Martell, who does look like a murderer, needs only to whisper his lines to give the impression that he absolutely did it — even if the show keeps giving the viewer reasonable doubt.

Defending Jacob delivers strong performances

Chris Evans does agreeably surly work in Defending Jacob.
Chris Evans does agreeably surly work in Defending Jacob.
Photo: Apple TV+

Everything here, in fact, feels underplayed and even-handed. Even revelations that seem to obfuscate certain narrative developments don’t erase the suspicions we accumulate about the Barber family. The series, which debuted with three episodes Friday on Apple TV+, still has five episodes waiting in the wings. For once, I’m deeply excited to see where an Apple TV+ show goes.

Everything in Defending Jacob — from the unpretentious direction, to the realistic portrait of a gray Massachusetts autumn, to the performances of every side character — builds an atmosphere of dread and mistrust that’s truly exciting.

Everyone’s on their best behavior, and the show succeeds by not trying to be more than it is — an engrossing but ordinary story of a family who suddenly doesn’t trust anything and who suddenly nobody trusts. It’s the strongest opening of any Apple TV+ show to date.

Rating: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+ (subscription required)

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.