Eight years ago, the crime novelist William Landay switched gears a bit. With Defending Jacob, his third book, he wrote a family drama cleverly tucked inside a crime thriller — and hit paydirt. Landay’s wildly best-selling book was immediately optioned by Warner for the big screen.
But it turns out Defending Jacob was too squirrelly for the two-hour film treatment. Then Anonymous Content optioned the book for Apple TV+, the idea being that Landay’s story needed something more like… seven hours. And whaddya know, eight years later Defending Jacob has hit paydirt again.
The eight-part series, which drops its first three episodes today on Apple TV+, is the story of a teenage boy accused of murder and his distraught parents, one of whom is a local prosecutor who is willing to do anything to clear his name. From the get-go, Defending Jacob grabs and holds your attention, hour after hour, as you try to figure out whether the kid did it, and if the parents are going to make it through the trial without imploding.
As an unintentional bonus, most viewers will be able to relate to the unbearable tension that builds up inside the house in the leafy Boston neighborhood where Andy, Laurie, and Jacob Barber live. With the murder trial playing out in the most public way possible, the Barbers are shunned by their community and forced to spend all day with each other, maybe for the first time. (“We’re acting like prisoners in our own home!” is a line from Defending Jacob, not a COVID-19 protest.)
The family’s slow disintegration is also strongly reminiscent of Ordinary People. As in Judith Guest’s novel, the psychological furnace of Defending Jacob is continuously stoked by revelations and shocking discoveries. And not just your standard crime-story twists, but secrets that this seemingly loving couple and their shy, troubled son are just starting to learn about each other.
Kudos to the producers who took no chances with the casting. The three lead actors have already shown from their prior work that these roles were tailor-made for them. Andy Barber, the D.A. whose son stands accused of killing a schoolmate, is played to square-jawed perfection by Captain America himself, Chris Evans. Does he think his kid did it? Of course not! And even if Jacob did do it, Andy Barber isn’t going to stand by and just watch his son get chewed up by the criminal justice system.
Then you have Michelle Dockery in the role of Laurie Barber, the successful wife whose world begins burning down, piece by piece, as her son’s case plays out in the courts, the media, in town, and at home. Dockery brings that stiff upper lip from Downton Abbey and holds it as long as she can as the bombs rain down around her, causing an emotional devastation that is, in the end, complete.
As for Jacob, Jaeden Martell — who played young Bill in the latest version of Stephen King’s It and an alt-right punk in Knives Out — fits the bill nicely. Jacob is a kid with few friends who spends a lot of time online, where he takes a beating from his classmates on social media, always on an iPhone or MacBook (again with the weird product placements, Apple!).
At the TV critics tour in California, I asked the screenwriter of Defending Jacob, Mark Bomback, what he saw in this story that the film studio didn’t.
“My mind just started racing down all these avenues within the story that would have gotten short shrift if this were a film,” Bomback said. “I don’t love the term ‘elevated thriller,’ but that’s what this is. We’re diving super-deep into the characters’ journeys. It is obeying the rules of a genre, but it’s ultimately about something.”
What we see in Defending Jacob, again and again, are sides of people that they’ve been hiding from each other, and themselves. One night Andy tells Laurie about an unethical step he’s taken (one of several, it turns out) to weaken the prosecution’s case against Jacob.
“We can’t leave our fate up to the courts and the cops!” he says, with the knowingness of the man who would be on the case right now if the defendant weren’t his own son. “Our only job now is to protect our son, whatever it takes.” As Laurie hears this, you can see her asking herself if this is the same man she married. At about this time, we learn that Andy’s dad was a violent offender himself, and he will pop up at a crucial moment. (Not that you won’t be tuning in anyway, but... it's J.K. Simmons people!!!!)
Laurie is stunned to learn this about Andy’s father and asks why he never revealed it before. Andy blurts out, lamely, “It’s what I come from, but it’s not who I am!” From that moment on, Andy’s aggressive, borderline lawless approach to controlling every situation starts to make more sense to the viewer.
And that’s why Defending Jacob works so well — everything is doled out in just the right measure to keep you fully immersed in the story. Apple TV+ may be struggling to get a nation of shut-ins to pay attention to its shows, but that’s not the fault of Defending Jacob. It’s the best Apple original series yet, and proof that like fine wine, some stories just need time to age and breathe a little.
The first three episodes of Defending Jacob are now streaming on Apple TV+, with new episodes dropping Fridays through May.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.