Apple TV+ hasn’t delivered a ton of original programming since it launched in November, but it has given streaming audiences some of the best and most creative scripted series of a new TV era, marked by its arrival and the touchdown of Disney+. A new content-packed challenger, HBO Max, debuts next month
The irreverent and oddly charming “Dickinson” is one great example of Apple’s winning gamble on unorthodox productions. The smart and moving anthology of immigrant tales, “Little America,” is another.
Now its newest offering, “Defending Jacob,” could be Apple’s first big flop. The limited drama series pales in comparison to Apple+ peers like “The Morning Show” largely because it avoids risk and embraces the formulaic. Part legal thriller, part whodunnit, the eight-part series stars an A-list cast, adheres to familiar crime genre convention and steps so carefully toward the finale reveal that it often feels more sleepy than suspenseful.
“Defending Jacob,” which premieres Friday with three episodes, follows a driven, respected Massachusetts public servant whose world implodes when his 14-year-old son is accused of murdering a classmate. The big questions: Did the boy do it? And how far will his parents go to protect him? The idea is to keep viewers guessing up until the end, but the true challenge is sticking with this unimaginative story long enough to find the answers.
Andrew Barber (Chris Evans) is an assistant district attorney who’s poised for great success. His spouse, Laurie (Michelle Dockery), is a beloved leader at a school for disadvantaged youth. They appear to have it all — looks, money, an Audi and a Range Rover — until their son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is arrested for allegedly murdering a classmate.
Based on William Landay’s novel of the same name, the TV adaptation brings viewers into the seamless lives of the Barbers, a family whose secrets could be their undoing. If only the journey toward that great fall or redemption (no spoilers here) had a few more unexpected detours or a jolt or two of adrenaline-producing turbulence.
Instead, “Defending Jacob” is a measured and duplicative story that feels like a collection of clips from other well-produced, but ultimately forgettable, crime narratives. It’s a wide field with plenty of players but only a handful of standouts, such as HBO’s “The Night Of” or BBC’s “Happy Valley.”
Cherry Jones is a welcome sight as the teen’s sage defense attorney, and Pablo Schreiber, who plays Barber’s former mentee and nemesis, is also a bright spot. As head prosecutor on the case, he’ll do just about anything to destroy Barber’s once-stellar standing in the courthouse and the community. They add a bit of grit and texture, which is sorely needed because there’s little dynamism between Dockery and Evans.
Martell is plenty creepy as Jacob. Or is he simply an emotionally clueless teenager? The character is intentionally hard to read, making his weird behavior annoyingly nebulous one moment, intriguing the next.
Directed by Morten Tyldum, the series looks and feels like a prestige TV production. The woods are wonderfully foreboding (think “Dublin Murders”), perpetually rainy streets reflect the mystery and misery of the place, and inside the Barbers’ upscale home, everything’s a disquieting shade of oppressive off-white.
The series does explore a few interesting theories about genetic predispositions toward violence, and convincingly pits the deep love of father and son against the churn of a compromised criminal justice system.
But Apple TV+ has done more, and better, with a lot less. “Defending Jacob” plays it too safe to break new ground, or repave old inroads into the genre.