Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 18, 2021)
Based on William Landay’s novel, 2020’s Defending Jacob brings us a “limited series” that originally ran on AppleTV+. As described on the packaging, the show “unfolds around a shocking crime that rocks a small Massachusetts town”.
This three-disc set includes all eight episodes of Defending. The plot synopses come from the series’ official website.
Pilot: “Assistant District Attorney Andy Barber (Chris Evans) is assigned as the lead prosecutor in the case of his son Jacob’s (Jaeden Martell) murdered classmate Ben Rifkin (Liam Kilbreth).”
Because Defending opens 10 months before the series’ main events, we know Andy doesn’t come through unscathed. Perhaps eventually I’ll think this acts as a good choice, but right now, it seems like a bad idea to foreshadow Andy’s eventual problems.
Otherwise, “Pilot” offers a perfectly solid opening episode. As expected, it offers the requisite plot and character exposition and checks off all the right boxes, so it launches the mystery in a fairly appealing manner.
Everything Is Cool: “When new evidence is discovered, Andy is taken off the case.”
Well, that didn’t take long! It never made much sense for Andy to get the case anyway, given that Jacob attended school with Ben. “Pilot” addressed this topic but it still felt off.
The events of “Cool” would demand this shift anyway, as Jacob becomes a prime suspect in the murder here. I do feel glad that Defending didn’t wait too long to implicate him. After all, the series’ title lets us know this will happen, so it doesn’t make sense to postpone that.
“Cool” moves along events, but it tends to feel a bit over the top, especially since it forces Andy to act like an idiot at times. Perhaps we could accept his behavior from a civilian, but it doesn’t make much sense for a seasoned attorney to act like such a dope.
Poker Faces: “Andy admits a family secret to Laurie (Michelle Dockery) before it becomes public.”
That secret feels like a curveball that makes little sense in the context of reality. Andy hid his past from everyone for decades and only reveals the truth when dramatically convenient?
Through three episodes, Defending tends to lean melodramatic, and “Faces” adds to that impression. The first few shows feel too much like “TV courtroom drama” without a lot of substance. Hopefully matters improve as the series progresses.
Damage Control: “Andy takes matters into his own hands. Laurie re-examines the life she knew.”
In an earlier episode, Defending telegraphed the possibility that pervy Leonard Parz (Daniel Henshall) might act as the murderer, and “Damage” pursues those leads – a bit. Most of “Damage” examines the personal fallout, and that becomes a decent subject, though not one that creates great intrigue. “Damage” gives us another spotty episode that leans a bit too much on soap opera.
Visitors: “Andy visits his father Billy (JK Simmons) and learns some troubling information from Jacob’s friends Derek (Ben Taylor) and Sarah (Jordan Alexa Davis).”
It’s always great to see Simmons, though Defending wastes him in a small role – or at least one that seems dinky as of now. It’s possible the show uses Simmons better down the road, though.
As of now, Simmons doesn’t get enough to do to add much spark to the proceedings. “Visitors” does dig more actively into the murder case, though, and that makes it a bit more interesting than most of its predecessors.
Wishful Thinking: “Andy and defense attorney Joanna Klein (Cherry Jones) explore last-ditch efforts to prove Jacob’s innocence.”
“Wishful” gives Simmons a little more to do, but still not quite enough to justify his presence. The episode comes with tonal leaps that don’t fit together especially well, as we go from investigation to thriller to melodrama in one less than concise package.
Job: “As the trial begins, Jacob’s fate hangs in the balance.”
As we near the series’ finale, we finally get to the courtroom, where the tension picks up to a substantial degree. “Job” tends to lean toward artificial theatrics, but it still becomes a largely interesting series of developments.
After: “The trial comes to an end, but with unexpected consequences.”
Though “Job” seemed to finish the suspense about the identity of the murderer, “After” demonstrates that the series won’t end on such a simple note. That actually disappoints, mainly because I thought “After” would offer an intriguing view of how people attempt to get back to normal following a major life event, but some revelations ensure that it becomes more about plot twists.
This means “After” finishes the season on a less engaging not than I’d like, though given the fact the first seven shows didn’t do a lot for me, this doesn’t become a surprise. “After” ties together matters in a moderately unsatisfying manner.