Another headliner show on Apple TV+. And, this time, it stars Captain America, Lady Mary, and Billy from It. Okay, no, there is no crossover with those franchises. But they may very well be how you recognize the starring actors in this new miniseries drama. It is definitely a departure from Marvel, Downton Abbey, and Stephen King. However, it is also a remarkable achievement in direction and performance — even if the writing falls slightly short. This is my review of Defending Jacob.
Based on the William Landay novel of the same name, the miniseries follows parents Andy (Chris Evans) and Laurie Barber (Michelle Dockery), who have to prove the innocence of their son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) over a recent stabbing homicide that occurred in their hometown in Newton, Massachusetts. Throughout the show, you get to experience the paranoia, pain, and ramifications of being associated with such a heinous act, even if there is a chance of innocence. You pick up on details like online self-censorship, false theories that are based on little information yet are devastatingly damning, people who don’t want to be associated with someone even if they are not guilty of the crime, etc.
Because the miniseries focuses on these details, there is not a whole lot of action or fast-paced stuff. It is a slow burn that always shows this overhead of dread and anguish over these characters, who are trying to hold on to every small morsel of hope they can. And, in the background, there is this mystery behind the homicide case that even you’re not sure about when you watch it. You want to believe that this kid is innocent because the parents do. However, at the same time, the puzzle pieces they find point towards those damning theories about Jacob. The brilliance of this build-up is that those pieces never prove any of them beyond a reasonable doubt. However, because of many people’s disregard of that phrase “reasonable doubt”, you watch the lives of these characters slowly dissolve. It’s painful to watch, which is clearly by the design of the writing to get you invested into these characters.
The team behind this show is world-class, and it definitely shows. The show’s creator, Mark Bomback, is a seasoned screenwriter, having done work on the latest Planet of the Apes trilogy with Andy Serkis and also written one of my favorite action movies of all time, Unstoppable. The show’s director is Oscar-nominated director of The Imitation Game, Morten Tyldum. Tyldum directs some amazing natural performances — , particularly from the three leads. Chris Evans is fantastic as the father who keeps it all together while fighting for his family. Michelle Dockery chews up the screen every time she is on, masterfully playing a distressed mother constantly on the brink of emotional collapse. Jaeden Martell’s performance is the most brilliant and nuanced, which, given his previous work, doesn’t surprise me one bit. He effortlessly plays a shy teenager who doesn’t care how the world sees him and has to suffer the consequences for it. If these guys don’t get acting award nominations, the system is rigged. Even Tyldum deserves some love from the Television Academy.
So, all of that was praise. What’s going on with the “slightly short” bit I mentioned at the beginning? Without spoiling anything, the ending of Defending Jacob takes an unexpected turn that didn’t make much sense to me. Throughout the show, we’re driven to believe that this is a social commentary on how normal people can have their lives destroyed by a particular event — even if they didn’t deserve it. And, while there definitely is that, there is also a bit of melodrama that develops from the middle of the story. The music by Atli Örvarsson and the theme by Olafur Arnalds accent the drama beautifully. However, the melodrama’s effect makes the ending of the story confusing and unfulfilling. It’s almost as if what we were building up to was shown to us then quickly dismantled before our eyes. I did check the synopsis of the original book, and it turns out they were being faithful to the source material. I can understand why Bomback decided to be faithful as it brings some engaging and intense drama to the story. But, in my personal opinion, certain narratives that work in novels don’t necessarily work on the screen. I’m not saying that this miniseries shouldn’t have been made. What I am saying is that the intent and execution behind the show’s ending feels disjointed. The conviction behind the message of the show, which felt so prevalent and poignant at first, just dies down at the end.
While I may not agree with people who say the pacing of this show was an issue (I thought it was perfect), I will agree that the conclusion of this show does fall short. The message of the show, however long it lasts in this show, is an important one for all of us to hear, and it’s probably the reason why this show is really popular. If you’re used to fast-paced hyper-aware storytelling, you might not enjoy this show. However, if you can appreciate drama and incredible dramatic acting that takes its time, there is a lot to like about Defending Jacob. The acting and the direction of this show is top-notch, and it deserves your attention.
Here is hoping that cinema and television become more and more eloquent in their messages as their stories continue to be entertaining and engaging.