Review: ‘Defending Jacob’ is gripping mystery miniseries on Apple TV+

This image released by Apple TV+ shows Chris Evans, from left, Jaeden Martell and Michelle Dockery in a scene from “Defending Jacob.” The six-part Apple TV+ drama series adapted from the 2012 New York Times best-selling novel by William Landay, premieres April 24. (Apple TV+ via AP)
WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Defending Jacob'

With so many streaming services these days, you might be skeptical of adding another.

However, if you don’t have Apple TV+ yet, you are missing out on “Defending Jacob.”

The first two episodes are free to stream, inviting you to subscribe in order to solve the gripping mystery that unfolds over a twisting and turning eight-episode miniseries.

Created by Mark Bomback (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) from a novel by William Landay, the story follows assistant district attorney Andy Barber (Chris Evans), who is given a leave of absence when his bullied teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is accused of murdering his 14-year-old classmate in suburban Newton, Massachusetts.

Like HBO’s “Bad Education” (2020) did for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, Evans is given room to show his acting chops beyond Captain America. We saw a glimpse in Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi action flick “Snowpiercer” (2013). Now, “Defending Jacob” combines his mystery chops from “Knives Out” (2019) with his custody battle in “Gifted” (2017) as a father who desperately wants to believe his son is innocent due to his own insecurities.

Actress Michelle Dockery (“Downton Abbey”) does the heavy lifting as wife Laurie, who shoulders the burden of unearthed family secrets. While Evans’ character gives his son the benefit of the doubt, Dockery’s Laurie is increasingly skeptical, believing he just might be guilty. Her internal debate is written all over her face in a fascinating performance.

Martell (“St. Vincent”) is perfectly awkward as the dead-eyed Jacob, at times sympathetic and other times flashing Damien-style glances. In many ways, he epitomizes the bullied teens of the post-Columbine era, social outcasts that seek refuge in violent video games, playing out fantasies on dark websites and tortured by their peers on social media.

Rounding out the cast are J.K. Simmons (“Whiplash”) as the sinister grandfather, Pablo Schreiber (“13 Hours”) as the relentless rival prosecutor, Cherry Jones (“Signs”) as the seasoned defense attorney, Betty Gabriel (“Get Out”) as the dutiful detective and Sakina Jeffrey (“House of Cards”) as the torn district attorney investigating one of her own.

Filmmaker Morten Tyldum, who directed Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” (2014), keeps us on edge with a muted color palette and somber tones set to Atli Örvarsson’s brooding music during shadowy jogs around the neighborhood.

The script keeps us guessing whether certain details are red herrings or vital clues, from pocket knives to social media comments to blog posts. Episode cliffhangers provide revelations that slowly disclose new information about both the characters’ backstories and the current trial stakes. One courtroom moment in particular will make you gasp.

At times, the wider framing device seems unnecessary as Schreiber grills Evans on the stand in a series of flash-forwards. At first, it feels like redundant exposition, causing us to want a more straightforward telling of the story. However, by the end of the series, you’ll realize why the filmmakers structured it this way as part of a larger plot twist.

In the end, the finale might leave you wanting more closure, depending on your taste. Don’t worry, we get a definitive verdict of guilty or innocent, but the writers keep the story going with cleverly ambiguous falling action, telling us without telling us. Some viewers might want more of a conclusive reward. For me, the journey was well worth the ride.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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