"Filled with smart-sounding legalese and impassioned pleas for justice, the eight-part limited series based on William Landay’s completely fictitious 2012 novel sees the tables turned on a Massachusetts district attorney (played by Massachusetts’ favorite Chris, Chris Evans) whose son is accused of killing another teen boy. Freed from the moral shackles of his role as state prosecutor, Andrew Barber can — and will — do whatever it takes to prove his child’s innocence… even if he’s guilty," says Ben Travers. "Sound good? Well, it’s fine, but only if you’re able to appreciate the schlocky story for what it is, rather than the Emmy-worthy piece of prestige TV its big names and solemn tone imply. While the series touches on weighty themes — like genetic dispositions toward violence, America’s convoluted justice system, and the internet’s effects on teens — any substantive points being drawn are discarded in favor of shock value, and by the end, it feels like many of these topics were just written in to fill time. Defending Jacob is a plot-first mystery; one where key details are held back in order to preserve twists and stretch the story beyond its means. If told under tighter time constraints — like say, as a two-hour movie — perhaps all the melodrama would’ve coalesced into a suitably intense family thriller. Instead, Apple’s vision is just an elongated 'what if' scenario strung out for no discernible purpose other than to scare parents."
Defending Jacob looks like Apple TV+'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," says Lorraine Ali. "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." Ali adds: "Defending Jacob is a measured and duplicative story that feels like a collection of clips from other well-produced, but ultimately forgettable, crime narratives."
Defending Jacob's strong cast elevates a stale drama: "The parent's worst nightmare scenario in these stories — it's the rare TV procedural that doesn't feature at least one potentially homicidal kid nearly every season — is so entrenched a subgenre that you can have overlapping premises, locations and key character names and nobody even bats an eye," says Daniel Fienberg. "The conventions are so familiar that it's hard to find a single story beat or plot twist or emotional swing in Defending Jacob that doesn't feel utterly stale, elongated to a running time of eight hours not so much for added nuance, but mostly because the kind of two-hour film Defending Jacob would have been — mid-budget, effects-free entertainment for 'grown-ups' — is one ceded to TV long ago. That leaves Defending Jacob with a superb cast and solid production values and little to add to the conversation."
Defending Jacob shows how to "Prestige-TV" a bestseller to death: Defending Jacob, says David Fear, "is designed to be the TV equivalent of an airport-read page-turner, part courtroom thriller and part parental-nightmare hand-wringer. What this eight-episode miniseries, written by creator Mark Bomback and directed by Morten Tyldum really is, however, could be described as an attempt for the streaming service to get in on a successful formula: Movie stars plus marquee book-club staple, divided by a single filmmaker’s vision, equals beaucoup eyeballs and Emmys. By dropping the first three episodes all at once, Apple wants to get viewers immediately hooked on the whodunnit aspect, with the hope that the sheer momentum of the mystery and the family-in-crisis melodrama keeps people tuning in. We wish them the best of luck regarding that leap of faith."
The talent assembled for Defending Jacob feels left out to dry: "Up to its final moments, this limited series strains for impact," says Daniel D'Addario. "But it’s unserious about the aspects of its story that are genuinely potentially interesting, and — up through a final twist that’s at least audacious — sillier than one might have any reason to expect. If shows could succeed on good intentions alone, this effort might be among the best of recent TV; in practice, it’s a bit hard to defend."
Defending Jacob is gripping enough, even if you've seen the story before: "Alfred Hitchcock worked the theme of suspicion between a man and a woman in Suspicion; Defending Jacob moves that theme to the even more deeply seated bond between parents and their beloved child," says Matthew Gilbert. "Whether or not Jacob is a killer, the uncertainty that strikes his parents is in itself a tragedy, and Defending Jacob drives that home effectively."
Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery are fantastic in a disappointing series: "The novel was a gripping, stay-up-way-too-late-to-read page turner," says Amy Amatangelo. "The series, not so much. Even though the eight-episode length is much shorter than most TV shows, it’s probably still two episodes too long. Director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) has an eye for gorgeous aerial shots. The show looks amazing. I had full-on kitchen envy during every single scene that takes place in the Barber home. But it’s also languid. The camera follows Laurie for too long on her morning jog, and is extremely fond of gazing on Evans’ furrowed brow (aren’t we all to be honest?). But the pacing takes away any urgency that is inherent in the storyline. The shocking reveals are way too drawn out. The result is a murder mystery you can put down."
Defending Jacob is literally too dark: "Every frame is shaded in a dark gray, likely an attempt to convey a visual example of the bleakness of a story about a teen accused of murder and the emotional fallout that ensues," says Caitlin Thomas. "But in reality, it just makes everything feel cold and dead, like the lifeless body that started it all. The fact the events depicted in the series are supposed to take place in the spring and summer in Massachusetts — a time of rebirth when nature should be alive and thriving — makes the gloomy, monochromatic color scheme even more jarring. Making matters worse is the fact the darkness level of some scenes actually limits viewers' ability to see the actors, and while it admittedly feels shallow to complain about not being able to see the bearded jawline of Chris Evans, no one is going to watch a TV show they can't see."
Chris Evans makes the standard family drama-slash-thriller appealing: Chris Evans' "BDE — his Big Daddy Energy — is that undeniable, a gift to shut-ins, murder mystery hounds and family drama addicts," says Melanie McFarland. "His work here is proof that not all heroes carry shields or suit up in spandex. Some wear the hell out of wool and a good quality cotton tee. Evans is the TV daddy we need right now. Defending Jacob just happens to be the easy driving prestige luxury vehicle touchlessly delivering him to our homes. We'll allow it."
Defending Jacob creator Mark Bomback says the titular character's guilt or innocence is "inconsequential": “In terms of how guilty or innocent he is, it’s almost inconsequential," he says. "I’m trying to keep that sensation of being a parent, and I want you to constantly be teetering — so just when you think, ‘Gee, is it possible?’ he’ll do something unexpectedly sweet — and vice versa. t’s more important how guilty or innocent his parents believe he is. What the show is really about are the limitations to ever really knowing your child.”
Bomback wanted to capture the spirit of William Landy's book: "I don’t think there’s that much in the show that’s very strictly faithful to what’s happening in the book," he says. "It’s really just more the spirit of the book. Sometimes it aligns quite closely, but more often than not, I thought about presenting it in terms of a limited series. It’s no disrespect to the book, the book’s fantastic. It’s just that the book wasn’t written to be cinema."