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Apple's Presumed Innocent Requires a Leap of Faith

The jury's still out on David E. Kelley’s latest legal drama.
  • Jake Gyllenhaal and Renate Reinsve in Presumed Innocent (Photo: Apple TV+)
    Jake Gyllenhaal and Renate Reinsve in Presumed Innocent (Photo: Apple TV+)

    Starting first in the mid-1980s as a massively successful legal novel by Scott Turow before being adapted in 1990 into one of Harrison Ford’s bigger non-Han Solo/Indiana Jones-related hit films, Presumed Innocent is now on the small screen. The legal thriller has received the limited-series treatment from Apple TV+ with a seeming murderer’s row of creative types heavily involved. J.J. Abrams serves as executive producer, David E. Kelley is the showrunner and frequent co-writer of the eight-episode series, which is toplined by Jake Gyllenhaal. 

    Almost all of the ingredients are in place for this Presumed Innocent to be both trashy and entertaining, the exact kind of summertime thrill-ride that once drew audiences into the multiplex. The cast is solid, the show looks polished, and it’s paced well — unfortunately, it’s never more than moderately compelling, thanks to some pressing storytelling issues the series either creates or never attempts to overcome. 

    Gyllenhaal stars as Rusty Sabich, a star member of the Chicago District Attorney’s Office. When the series begins, Rusty is doing his best to ensure that his irascible mentor Raymond (Bill Camp) is able to win a fierce election battle against the up-and-coming Nico Della Guardia (O-T Fagbenle). Rusty is also grappling with the fallout of an intense affair with his colleague Carolyn (Renate Reinsve), an affair that his wife Barbara (Ruth Negga) is already intimately, angrily familiar with. 

    Rusty’s already messy life takes a turn for the worse when Carolyn is brutally murdered and trussed up, and all the evidence suggests that he killed her. With his shifty rival Tommy (Peter Sarsgaard) now serving as the prosecution in his murder case, Rusty relies on Raymond as well as his own determination to clear his name and avoid being sent to jail.

    Although this Presumed Innocent is eight episodes long, and thus naturally expands on a few of the character beats and grace notes of the film, there’s one area where the show all but refuses to expand, and to its detriment. We know Rusty was obsessed with Carolyn, and she didn’t quite reciprocate that intensity of feeling. This point is illustrated via fragmented flashbacks that enable Reinsve to appear well after the character’s body is found, and as the case progresses, we learn that Rusty was emailing, calling, and texting Carolyn constantly. 

    But pointing out a character’s obsession with someone else only takes the show so far. As talented as Reinsve is — some indie-film fans may know her best from the recent Norwegian dramedy The Worst Person in the World — she’s given very little to work with as Carolyn. Rusty’s not even the only one who seems intensely invested in being part of her sphere, but it’s never easy to understand why so many characters care so strongly about her. Reinsve does her best, including demonstrating that she can do a very convincing American accent. But her attempts to elevate the character beyond something akin to the corpse-of-the-week of a standard legal procedural don’t help much. 

    Accepting Gyllenhaal as a guy who’s this close to being fully unhinged is perfectly reasonable, but the relationship Rusty and Carolyn had before her murder remains as much a mystery after seven episodes. The finale was not made available to press (at least as of this writing), but that speaks to the other unknown of Presumed Innocent. Though there are some obvious differences in this adaptation vs. the 1990 film starring Ford, the most obvious question of who killed Carolyn remains outstanding with one episode remaining. 

    Both the film and the original novel feature the same murderer (this review won’t spoil their identity, but a quick Google search can clarify the matter), and there’s no reason the show can’t go in the same direction. Kelley does allow for some superficial differences between the film and the series, such as Raymond now serving as Rusty’s defense lawyer, and there are plenty of modern touches as well that wouldn’t have been present three decades ago. But if the show adheres too closely to the novel and the film, it will be impossible to fathom why it exists aside from reviving vaguely recognizable intellectual property.

    Throughout the seven available episodes, Presumed Innocent has flashes of a genuinely compelling drama with realistic character-driven tragedy. Rusty’s complexity as a person is equally involving and frustrating, since he seems incapable of avoiding the worst possible impulses in his life. The two standout performances speak to the potential of the show, courtesy of the opposing sides of the legal battle. As Raymond, Camp embodies a specific type of lawyer who would have been very at home in Kelley’s past shows like The Practice or Boston Legal, grouchy, intelligent, vituperative, and often very funny. Sarsgaard gets a much trickier part in the form of Tommy Molto, the overly driven and dedicated deputy of Della Guardia, who wants very badly to be seen as heroic as Rusty and is resentful for being perceived as just kind of a creepy loner. 

    Kelley, for his part, is very comfortable in the legal environment — though each roughly 40-minute episode moves at a reasonable enough clip, once the characters are in the courtroom dealing with the stern but not-too-fierce judge (Noma Dumezweni), the show seems at its liveliest. But it’s still a little hard for Presumed Innocent to feel truly vital or alive; aside from a healthy dose of profanity and the presence of A-listers like Gyllenhaal and Negga, the story itself feels only slightly removed from something Kelley may have written in his network days. He, like Turow, is a lawyer-turned-writer, making the echoes of the past version of Presumed Innocent impossible to avoid.

    The show benefits from its entire ensemble, not just Camp and Sarsgaard. (Though it is a charming note that Camp’s real-life wife Elizabeth Marvel plays Raymond’s wife in the show.) Gyllenhaal is asked to make Rusty as believably charming as he is believably weighed down by a hair-trigger temper, and does so effectively, but in a way that recalls his past work. Gyllenhaal’s intense gaze has always aided him as an actor, partially to set the audience at unease.

    As the evidence continues to mount that Rusty had an unhealthy fixation on Carolyn (even if that fixation may not have led him to kill anyone), the actor has to continue convincing us that the lead character isn’t a murderer while also allowing for just enough doubt. He’s doing fine work here, as is the more subtle Negga, who’s tasked with a much more interior character in Barbara. There’s plenty of reason for her to have left her husband (both before the show’s events and during the show itself); Negga is very solid, though, in making Barbara’s choice to stay recognizable if flawed.

    Most murder mysteries or crime dramas end up being only as effective as the reveal of whodunit. For Presumed Innocent, the verdict on creativity isn’t out yet — if the series ends up following in the footsteps of the film's conclusion, it will be all the more difficult to understand what the point of this exercise is beyond reviving IP simply to revive IP. 

    Presumed Innocent premieres June 12 on Apple TV+, with new episodes dropping on Wednesdays. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Josh Spiegel is a writer and critic who lives in Phoenix with his wife, two sons, and far too many cats. Follow him on Bluesky at @mousterpiece.

    TOPICS: Presumed Innocent, Apple TV+, Jake Gyllenhaal