Meet the Barbers. Andrew (Chris Evans) is a hotshot assistant district attorney, crusading for truth and justice in Newton, Massachusetts. Laurie (Michelle Dockery) is the face of Children’s Cottage, a school dedicated to serving traumatized and abused kids in the greater Boston area. Their son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell), is a run-of-the-mill teenager — friends, video games, high school, an assortment of hoodies. He’s reed-thin and slightly nerdy, a tad socially awkward maybe, but no more so than most 14-year-old boys. They could be any upper-middle-class American family living in any house in any tony U.S. suburb.
So why, you may ask, are we introduced to Andrew on the witness stand of a courtroom, being interrogated by his fellow D.A., Neal Loguidice (Pablo Schreiber)? It might have something to do with a case Andrew was investigating 10 months earlier, involving a body found in the woods. The corpse was another 14-year-old boy — in fact, Jacob knew the kid. His name was Ben Ratliff. Andrew and Pam Duffy (Betty Gabriel), a homicide detective he’s worked with in the past, have their eye on a local sex offender (Daniel Henshall) as the culprit. But, out of due diligence, they question Ben’s classmates. That’s how they’re tipped off the jockish dude may have bullied the younger Barber, and that Jacob may have a knife that bears a remarkable resemblance to the blade used to stab the boy to death, and maybe Mom and Dad don’t know their child as much as they think they do. Soon, their son is arrested as the prime suspect in the case. And that’s when their perfect life is permanently torn apart.
Based on the bestseller by William Landay and premiering tonight, Apple’s Defending Jacob — because why should HBO and Hulu get all the good, juicy literary adaptations? — is designed to be the TV equivalent of an airport-read page-turner, part courtroom thriller and part parental-nightmare hand-wringer. What this eight-episode miniseries, written by creator Mark Bomback and directed by Morten Tyldum really is, however, could be described as an attempt for the streaming service to get in on a successful formula: Movie stars plus marquee book-club staple, divided by a single filmmaker’s vision, equals beaucoup eyeballs and Emmys. By dropping the first three episodes all at once, Apple wants to get viewers immediately hooked on the whodunnit aspect, with the hope that the sheer momentum of the mystery and the family-in-crisis melodrama keeps people tuning in. We wish them the best of luck regarding that leap of faith.
To be fair, anyone who abandons this exercise in potboiling-by-numbers early on will miss J.K. Simmons, who shows up as Andrew’s estranged father, and who, no joke, improves every scene in he’s in by half. (The Oscar winner’s involvement with the miniseries is not a secret, given that he shows up in the trailer. The face-palming plot twist that slots him into the story, however, is best discovered on your own.) But those who decide to stick around will be rewarded with diminishing returns, in addition to fetish porn sites, old-school ex-mobsters, angsty heshers, social-media flaming, a creepy kids-choir version of Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game,” Jennifer Egan name-drops, loads of suburban snubbing, and too many close-ups of clenched jaws to count. Despite the numerous flash-forward interludes of Evans and Schreiber — whose villainous lawyer is blessed with a last name that’s pronounced “Low Judas” — going at each other before a jury, it takes a while to get to the proper courtroom drama, which does deliver theater legend Cherry Jones channeling Atticus Finch. Yet it’s still not enough to get you past what feels like a lot of hot, dead air.
Even the name-brand talent can’t quite up the voltage. Chris Evans is an underrated actor (see his gleefully douchey turn in Knives Out). Thanks to his matinee-idol looks, he’s been earmarked for leading-man status, which may not be his true forte. Evans has a tendency to radiate a sort of steadfast everyman sincerity when he’s stuck having to shoulder the bulk of the proceedings, which can work in his favor; it’s a big reason why he was the perfect guy to play Captain America. Here, however, that quality just translates as a single-cell paternal concern — he’s going to defend his kid by any means necessary, and that feels like the beginning and the end of the character. There’s little dynamism in what he’s doing, only changes in the volume of line readings. Dockery fares a little better, given her character has more of an arc to travel, but, as with her co-star, you can feel the Downton Abbey veteran bumping her head against the material’s ceiling. As for Tyldum, he brings the same sort of bare-bones functionality he’s brought to his big-screen work. The best thing you can say about The Imitation Game is that it’s a decent showcase for Benedict Cumberbatch, and the best thing you can say about his Chris Pratt-Jennifer Lawrence vehicle Passengers is that it’s under two hours. You feel like they could have hired any director to get the same effect here.
Anyone who’s read the source material knows there’s a major twist embedded in the narrative, and while we can’t vouch for how the climax reads on the page, we can say that you either buy it wholeheartedly, or it will inspire you to throw numerous sharp objects at your television. Defending Jacob is not bad so much as the result of what happens when you try to reverse-engineer a bestseller into a conversation-starter, and prestige-TV it to death. It’s tempting to view this as part of a bigger problem at Apple, whose output — other than the stellar Dickinson — suggests they’re merely trying to play catch-up by replicating others’ past successes to painfully lesser degrees. Given enough time, they will likely find their breakthrough, a Mad Men or Orange is the New Black to call their own. It’s safe to say, however, that this project is Exhibit A for the case that diluted, distended literary adaptations isn’t where they’re going to make their mark.