Defending Jacob Review: A thrilling and enticing must-watch series from Apple TV +
With a desperate need for binge-worthy content, Apple TV+ finally finds what it’s looking for in the engrossing and intriguing mystery of Defending Jacob.
Set in the small town of Newton, Massachusetts, the series follows assistant district attorney Andy Barber (Chris Evans) as he investigates the murder of a young boy that has captured the attention of the entire community. However, he’s taken off the case when his 14-year-old son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is accused of killing him and his family begins to garner the suspicion of everyone in town. Now, as Andy’s distraught history with his father (J.K. Simmons) begins to come out and his wife Laurie (Michelle Dockery) begins to deal with the secrets that both Andy and Jacob have been hiding, the family must uncover all of the dark secrets and clues that could possibly prove Jacob’s innocence.
With his performance here and a great performance in Knives Out, Evans is having one hell of a showing in his post-Captain America career. The drive and determination he shows as Andy is incredibly easy to relate to and he makes Andy’s more secretive, lawyer personality very believable. Literally the only thing he has on his mind is his son’s innocence and there’s very little that’s going to change that. Evans perfectly captures Andy’s willingness to do anything to prove his son’s innocence and you can tell how exhaustive things are becoming for him. He’s also shows a great vulnerability in dealing with past trauma with his father and even slowly coming to terms with Jacob’s behavior. There’re great moments where his undying positive view of Jacob finally breaks down and Evans nails how much this sudden change in perspective impacts Andy. If Evans’ performance here is a testament to anything, it’s that he’s carrying his already strong momentum forward and his career is going in an incredible direction.
Dockery is also absolutely incredible here and possibly gives the strongest performance in the entire series as she embodies all of the slow-building dread Laurie has in coming to terms with her family’s secrets. Laurie might be the easiest character to gravitate to in this series as her genuine concern and questioning of Jacob’s actions and the family secrets Andy has been keeping is very justified. The sense of betrayal and fear she has in figuring out if Jacob did it and re-examining her son’s upbringing as well as her relationship with Andy.
While she still loves them and will never be able not to, regardless of what the outcome really is, it’s easy to understand how she starts to question things and possibly even think that Jacob is capable of doing the things that he’s accused of. There’s so much emotional weight coming down on her that when she crumbles or is pent up with frustrations and fears, it’s hard not to feel the same way. Dockery evokes all of this and more with her performance and creates a sense of empathy for her fears becoming reality and simply trying find some kind of normalcy to stay sane.
There’s also a slew of excellent supporting performances, really too many to name them all, that fill out a truly phenomenal cast. Martell is just as great as always delivering a shadowy performance that balances Jacob’s secretive, sort of isolated nature with compelling feelings of fear of just wanting this nightmare to be over with. Cherry Jones is great as Joanna, Jacob’s lawyer, as a sympathetic mediator for everything happening with the Barber family and is just kick-ass in the courtroom. Even while his character is easily unlikable as Andy’s rival, Pablo Schreiber is great as Neal as he plays up his smugness and drive for the power and success that Andy has to an entertaining degree of villainy. It’s also just great to see the like of Betty Gabriel and J.K. Simmons as they round out a legitimately strong cast.
Thankfully, this great cast also has a lot to work with as the direction from series director Morten Tyldum and the writing from Mark Bomback is great. There’s always a tantalizing sense of tension and drama that carries over from one episode to the next and keeps you questioning what people’s true intentions are. It’s the kind of series that can keep you guessing and has such strong performances that instantly gravitates you towards the characters and hooked on every little detail that comes into play. There’re very few shows that have sucked me into the story that like Defending Jacob has and it’s all in part to the way this series utilizes issues about violent behavior, the accusatory atmosphere of the internet, and how even the smallest of action can have huge consequences to create a series that’s so damn fun to watch. It turns the idea of walking on eggshells into walking on a bed of nails with one wrong step leaving painful ramifications and it’s really awesome at times. However, none of this isn’t to say that this series isn’t without its flaws.
Personally, one of the big issues the story has is its perspective as it unintentionally makes certain characters look bad because of who the series simply labels as the protagonist. It’s hard not to feel like the series makes the parents of the murdered boy, Ben (Liam Kilbreth) look kind of bad since the only times we see them is either accusing the Barbers or even spitting in their face at the grocery store. Scenes like Ben’s mother giving a speech during the graduation and his father sitting in his room trying to deal with the loss of his son are great moments that give them more sympathetic qualities, but the series doesn’t take the objective approach it should’ve in order to flesh out all of the emotions and actions felt outside of the Barber household.
The final episode also leaves things a little too ambiguous in a way that diverts from William Landry’s, the author of the novel of the same name this series is based on, more definitive ending. In the previous episode, there’s something that gets revealed about Jacob that’s literally horrifying and changes the perspective of how Laurie and Andy view Jacob. However, after “shocking evidence” that’s been built up because of how this series keeps red herrings along is revealed, they just let this go and treat him like he did nothing wrong. Perhaps this meant to show how they are just so willing to get the answer they want to hear or don’t care for Jacob in ways he needs, but it totally ruins the lesson or sudden change that occurred with these characters. Not to mention, we’re treated to a slightly convoluted ending that leaves viewers unsatisfied because of its ambiguity and creates questions that won’t be answered – including its central question that drives the entire series.
Regardless of some of its storytelling flaws and a lackluster conclusion, Defending Jacob is the kind of star-studded and enticing drama that Apple TV+ needs to get people on board. It bolsters plenty of great performances, especially from Evans and Dockery who hopefully could and should see some awards attention, and an engrossing, detailed story that will easily make any viewer hooked from start to finish.