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‘Defending Jacob’ Is An Unsettling Crime Drama Focused On Family

Created by Mark Bomback and based on William Landay’s novel of the same name, “Defending Jacob” is not your typical murder mystery show. The Apple TV+ limited series adds elements of legal thriller and family drama to a classic whodunit plot. 

Throughout its eight episodes, we follow the tight-knit Barber family in the small suburban town of Newton, Massachusetts. Andy Barber (Chris Evans) is a respected assistant district attorney who is assigned to investigate the murder of Ben Rifkin (Liam Kilbreth), a classmate of his son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) that is found stabbed to death in the park near their middle school. Jacob’s lack of empathy and dark sense of humor towards the murder leads Andy and his wife Laurie (Michelle Dockery) to question their son. Jacob soon becomes the prime suspect of the case after a knife that perfectly fits the description of the murder weapon is found in his room and a lone fingerprint on Ben’s body is proven to be his. The Barber’s perfect life is shattered as secrets are revealed, truths are told, and a trial is played out.  

At first glance, the series’ dark ambiance, suspenseful music and downhearted mood make it easily fit into the murder mystery category. What other shows of its genre lack is an emphasis on familial hardships such as the intimate portrayal of a pressured family that “Defending Jacob” has. The family is constantly being followed by crowds of reporters, they can no longer go out in public without being stared at and their house has been vandalized with the words “murderer rot in hell” painted on their garage door. A majority of scenes set in the Barber household depict Jacob’s tutoring sessions (since he can’t attend school), meetings with the family’s defense attorney Joanna Klein (Cherry Jones), and Laurie looking at Jacob’s baby pictures while questioning herself as a mother realizing she may have raised a sociopath. These details initiate the unsettling truth that whether or not Jacob is innocent, the Barbers’ lives will certainly never be the same again. 

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the show is the fact that the suspect being charged with criminal activity is a 13-year old.  Jacob is a smart but odd young boy who you’re never quite sure whether or not he’s just an innocent kid caught up in a scheme or someone much more frightening. One moment he’s seen as a normal teenager playing video games with his friends and the next he is looking at violent pictures on the internet. While it’s certainly daunting to see a child in handcuffs and being questioned by the police, it’s also realistic and suggests that criminals don’t have to be adults. With new suspects and evidence being brought into the investigation, the likelihood of Jacob’s innocence is constantly shifting to keep the viewers wondering whether or not he did it all the way to the end. 

The series also includes a dual timeline that often flashes forward to an unknown hearing during which Andy is being questioned while seemingly distraught. This adds the question of what had to happen in between the present and the future to end up at that point. Although there were various spot-on performances — Martell’s shift between ordinary teenage awkwardness and sociopathic tendencies, Dockery’s constant shock and distress — Chris Evans is by far my favorite. For “Defending Jacob,” Evans puts down his shield and goes full-on dad mode — beard and all. As the initial investigator of the crime scene, his character finds himself torn between his sworn duty to uphold the law and his unconditional love for his son. He loses touch with some of his fellow detective friends as they take over his role in the crime scene and stand against him in the courtroom. It’s heartening to see Andy never giving up or questioning his son while doing everything he possibly can to save his family from the great deal of hate thrown at them. 

The show as a whole is slightly long and drawn out — the eight episodes could have easily been shortened into five by taking out some of its unnecessary scenes that didn’t further the plot at all. It is a profoundly dark series that had me longing for the few lighthearted moments it did have to be a little more drawn out. “Defending Jacob” nonetheless hits the mark by embedding the unsettling notion that we can never truly know someone even if we raised them.  

Jacqui Pash is an Entertainment Intern for the 2020 spring quarter. She can be reached at jpash@uci.edu.