A slow mystery drama, Defending Jacob is a character-driven drama as an upper middle-class family find themselves embroiled in a murder case; 14 year-old son, Jacob, is the accused.
As leading Assistant DA, a driven Chris Evans (Captain America, Knives Out) heads the case of the murder of Ben, a 14 year-old at the same school as Jacob (Jaeden Martell – Knives Out, It), stabbed to death in a local park. But he’s quickly removed when evidence piles up against his son – in spite of suspicion falling on a local sex offender.
Over its eight episodes, Defending Jacob goes back and forth in relation to the boy’s innocence or guilt, keeping the audience guessing. It’s a slow reveal, told in flashback. This is as much about the impact of the accusations as it is about the killing itself.
There’s no question in the mind of Chris Evans about his son’s innocence – a stance not wholly shared by his wife, Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey, The Gentlemen). With Jacob’s cold hearted lack of empathy and questionable sense of humour, along with results from tests being run with a biological psychologist (Poorna Jagannathan – TV’s Messiah, Big Little Lies), mom is beginning to think her son is a possible sociopath. Laurie’s uncertainty is tearing herself and her family apart.
Shot in Boston’s early winter, lensed with a blue filter to emphasise the coldness of the world the narrative is set within, Defending Jacob is a polarising experience for viewers. Too slow for many, the ending is certainly questionable (and different from William Landay’s book).
As a determined father out to provide the evidence needed to free his son, Evans is excellent: he struggles, however, over the extended run of the series with the more intimate family moments. Dockery conveys the change from comfortable mother and wife into a nervous, guilt-ridden wreck well – not surprising given the enigmatic, disturbing Jaeden Martell, a perfect mix of innocence, coldness and confusion.
Engaging, engrossing if overlong (the energy palls after three or four episodes) and a little too much artifice and design rather than good old-fashioned emotional transgression, Defending Jacob is nevertheless a superior piece of streaming television.
An AppleTV+ original.