How far would you go to clear your son’s name? The title “Defending Jacob” suggests that the story will be one of a Father’s heroism in the face of a legal system that doesn’t believe his child. There will be intrigue. There will be justice. By God, there will be speeches upon speeches. “Defending Jacob” thankfully isn’t as paint by numbers as that, but it is similarly bland. The latest Apple TV+ mystery never bothers to makes any of the Barber characters unique or interesting. Almost by design, they appear to be the cookie cutter white suburban family. Even though the show is pitched very loudly, “Defending Jacob” has little to say. In fact, all it has to offer are pretty people in white, sterile locations showing off their skin care routine while emoting and shouting.
The Barber family seems perfect from the beginning. Andy (Chris Evans) is a hard-nosed, yet respected, District Attorney. His wife, Laurie (Michelle Dockery), is eternally supportive and knows how to make sure her all white, granite house is spick and span at every moment. It bears repeating, the Barber household looks like Nancy Meyers went minimalist modern. It’s cold and beautiful. The odd element out is their son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell), who they love but seems to have a dark humor that rubs off on other kids poorly. Then one of Jacob’s classmates, Ben, is found dead in the woods. It slowly comes out that Jacob was not friends with this boy. After Jacob posts an unsavory status update online, it comes out that Jacob had brought a knife to school and many of his classmates think he murdered Ben.
It doesn’t take long for Jacob to be brought in as a suspect and for a court case to mount against him. Being a DA, Andy thinks he can work the system, but he is precluded from representing Jacob. He’ll just have to “defend Jacob” from afar. Instead, a colleague of Andy’s is put on the case, Joanna Klein (Cherry Jones). Jones elevates the show from a standard courtroom drama. She’s less interested in coddling Jacob and his outbursts. Under Jones’ precise characterization, you see the distance she puts between her job and her client.
The major problem with “Defending Jacob” could’ve almost been its greatest strength. Jaeden Martell never makes Jacob clearly innocent or clearly guilty. He’s a privileged kid who has somewhat typical friction with other students. However, what defines him as “a weird kid” seems to change with every episode. He goes from obliviously blunt to an almost sociopathic level of non-empathy. The goal seems to be to keep us guessing whether Jacob committed murder or not. However, Jacob becomes a walking scoreboard of tics that say either “he did it” or “he didn’t do it.” A film like “Primal Fear” was able to create suspense by building a twisty case around a person who suffers from dissociative identity disorder. Blaming Jacob’s behavior on a mental disorder might be too easy or rudimentary. However, the character never comes alive because we never fully know what he is or isn’t capable of.
Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery both know how to emote beautifully. One almost wishes they could fully “defend Jacob” and solve the case so that they can get back to looking like the family in stock photos that are in CVS picture frames. For Dockery, Laurie appears to be only defined by whether or not she believes her son. The show gives Evans more of a subplot, but one that is arguably the most tacked on and laughable element. J.K. Simmons enters the show as a figure from Andy’s past that he hasn’t appropriately confronted. With this, the show wants to address where a person’s violent behavior stems from. Is it learned or is it innate? Not only does the show never appropriately answer this, it never even really grapples with the question its answering.
By the end of the show’s end, it doesn’t matter whether Jacob did or didn’t kill Ben. “Defending Jacob” exists only to push these parents further and further into questioning their son’s innocence. Recent legal thrillers, such as “The Night Of,” have used the genre to address real issues the plague our world and our justice system. There’s something old school about “Defending Jacob,” in a negative way. It truly has nothing to say and exists in no specific time or space. Jacob is a blank canvas of creepy fears people have about teenagers. Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery perfectly balance looking gorgeous and concerned. Unfortunately, the only thing the show knows how to do is pull out crazy twist after twist. While that can entertain (and it certainly does in the final portion of the show), it doesn’t add up to a satisfying enough series.