Defending Jacob, the 2020 Apple TV+ show is eight episodes long but only has enough story to fill six installments. It has a slow, plodding pace that sometimes had my finger hovering over the skip-forward button more than a few times. Fortunately, the series is otherwise wonderful to watch.
The show is adapted from the 2012 novel of the same name. The adaptation for Apple TV+ differs in several areas, none I found to be egregiously bad, just confusing since the show’s script picked a few odd things to change. I think the book would have been accessible to film in its original form and didn’t need changes, but the differences seem to be artistic rather than practical.
The plot is about a family’s slow torturous demise from normalcy into despair since their only child, Jacob, a soft-spoken, 14-year old is accused of murdering one of his eighth-grade classmates. The murder is not shown, and the audience needs to piece together the details as they unfold, sometimes off-screen, throughout the first few episodes. It’s a tall order, particularly with the slow pacing. The source material received praise for its ambiguous plot approach and ending, and the series also heavily relies on this style. You never quite know was is true and how secrets revealed will affect what comes next. It’s more Thinking than Thriller.
Chris Evans is superb in his role as the father and the government’s criminal prosecutor, who finds himself about to investigate his son before he’s taken off the case. Michelle Dockery gives an impassioned performance as the distraught mother who continues to crack as tension mounts. Jaeden Martell convinces as the murder suspect and middle-school nobody who is consistently mocked and bullied, and he never betrays his immersion in the character. One particular standout was Cherry Jones as the family’s lawyer, who nails that smart-snarky vibe perfectly, and brought a colorful respite to otherwise sad, gray characters.
Apple TV+ made a good choice to bring the book to the small screen as a limited series. Even though it’s moody and creepy, you won’t be disappointed if your expectation is for an intimate look at the destruction that can happen to a family under intense scrutiny and not a run-of-the-mill murder mystery that has a tidy ending.