NOTE: Here is my review from Soda & Telepaths that was posted back on April 27, 2020. It was a review of the first 3 episodes of Defending Jacob, I have yet to complete it (because Apple+ was so bad guys… so bad!)
Chris Evans has had what you might call a monster of a year. He starred in Avengers: Endgame AKA the biggest movie of 2019, followed that up with critical acclaim in Knives Out and has now well and truly broken away from his image as Captain America with his brand new series Defending Jacob on Apple+, a streaming service that no one likes… but they might want to give it a shot for this series.
One quick note before we begin, I’m basing this review on the three episodes that were available on April 24th. A new episode will be released weekly, anything said here is based on the opening trilogy of episodes so take that for what it’s worth.
Defending Jacob, based on the novel of the same name by William Landay, tells the story of the Barber family. Andy Barber (Chris Evans) is an assistant district attorney, which is probably not going to be much help throughout this series. His wife Laurie (Michelle Dockery) is a teacher and your typical worried mom/housewife. Then there’s young Jacob (Jaeden Martell), a 14-year-old kid who is clearly going through his “Why do I care?” phase. They have your typical suburban home and typical suburban family in your typical suburb when there’s a murder in a nearby park and Jacob is the main suspect.
Told mostly in flashbacks, Defending Jacob is another one on the pile of “Miniseries about a murder in a town full of secrets” series, joining things like Big Little Lies with its muted visual tone and occasionally melodramatic performances by a great cast. Unlike Big Little Lies, this series isn’t quite as instantly gripping as it could be but it makes up for that with some beautiful cinematography and a cast who are giving it their all.
It would probably seem obvious to point out, but Chris Evans is definitely showing he is more than America’s Ass. Since Endgame he has had to really show he can thrive outside the MCU and this was the second major performance that proves he’ll be just fine. His role is gloriously complex, straddling the line between an attorney trying to follow the law and a father trying to do what’s best for his son and he plays it so carefully that you can already see the building blocks for an inevitable outburst in a later episode.
Michelle Dockery brings such charm and warmth to her character and she gets to show her sense of doubt in her son growing more and more with each episode. Little moments where she is barely holding back tears or her breakdown in episode 3 are heartbreaking and wonderfully done. Again, they’re just slowly building something up with her and I’m genuinely curious to see just where they take her arc.
The one who surprised me with how good he was is Jaeden Martell, who I shouldn’t have been surprised by because he has been consistently on top of his game since he was in the It movies and then followed that up with Knives Out and The Lodge. This kid is legitimately amazing and several times will make you want to cry just seeing him trying to reckon with what’s happened, but also makes you wonder “Wait, did he do it?” with just a look. He makes every episode genuinely gripping because you want to know just what’s going on inside his head.
Defending Jacob, so far, is mostly just setup. They have yet to enter the courtroom proper and right now it’s just getting everything ready for the inevitable episodes surrounding the court case. Even with only 8 episodes, you can tell right away that Defending Jacob is taking its time to get through the story which does make it feel a little slow to get going. It fills the time well with nice little character moments, some particularly quippy and playful banter in the first episode makes you like this little family a lot more so it’s not like it’s bad to start slow, but I do hope that future episodes pick up the pace a little.
If I’m being honest, the worst thing I can say about Defending Jacob is that it’s on Apple+ which is possibly the worst of the streaming services I’ve used (though I haven’t used Quibi yet so there’s still time to find a worse choice). I know it’s still in its infancy, maybe it’ll improve but… I mean, this is Apple and they should know better.
As it is, the site is ugly, the video player is a pain in the neck, good luck trying to watch this on a normal TV unless you pay for an Apple TV box (Editors note: This has changed, you can get apps on game systems… still very badly designed, but at least it’s there) and this show is one of 20 original items currently on the service. 20 items, which is roughly half the number of full-length documentaries that Netflix dropped on YouTube a week ago. This show could really be a nice easy thing for audiences to enjoy but I’m afraid it’s going to slip under the radar because it’s saddled with being on a service that most people are going to only use if they have a free year of it available.
While a lot of Defending Jacob feels familiar, it’s still a good series with a lot of potential. If the summary of the book is any indication of where Defending Jacob is going to go (don’t Wikipedia it unless you want to be spoiled) I can see Defending Jacob really exploding in later episodes. With incredible performances by everyone involved, this is a really good show that’s worth seeking out… but, ya know, if you have a free year of Apple+ because I couldn’t imagine signing up to the service just for Defending Jacob.