There are some stories that sit with you long after you’ve experienced them. Whether it’s a book, film, or theater production, these tales leave a mark, and such is true with Apple TV+’s newest hit limited series, Defending Jacob. The tale of the Barber family isn’t new to 2020, a novel of the same name written by William Landay sat on the New York Times Bestsellers list in 2012, and as with all screen adaptations, there were some nerves for fans of the book. The story is one unlike any other, and Apple TV+ certainly took that into consideration with the decision to turn the pages of the book into an 8-episode miniseries versus a film, leaving room for the moments of silence and less climactic struggles the Barbers face, which is the true heart of this story.
Written for television by Mark Bomback and directed by Morten Tyldum, Defending Jacob stars Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery, and Jaeden Martell as the Barber family, Andy, Laurie, and Jacob, along with Cherry Garcia as Joanna Klein, J.K. Simmons as Billy Barber, Berry Gabriel as Detective Paula Duffy, and Pablo Schreiber as Neal Loguidice. The Barber family’s world is rocked when their 14-year-old son is arrested for murdering his classmate, and it takes us on a journey through the nightmares that follow.
The first success for this series was in its cast. One important and crucial win for Apple TV+ and the creators of this show were the changes made to two of the characters in particular, Paula Duffy (Gabriel) and Joanna Klein (Garcia). Originally two men in the novels, Paul Duffy became not only a woman, but a woman of color, and Jonathan Klein was made an LGBTQ woman. It was refreshing and almost a relief to see the producers and creators of this show take that extra step in ensuring valid and worthy representation, giving both of these women pivotal and essential roles in the story. Both stars played their characters exceptionally well with skillful and empowering performances. Schreiber also shines as Neal Loguidice, the prosecutor in charge of Jacob’s case. A complicated role from the start, he’s easy to hate, but by the end you’ll be asking yourself if it was Neal, or the circumstances surrounding him that made you feel the way you did.
Jaeden Martell was remarkable as Jacob. This was no easy role, as the guilt of his character is never established at any point in the story — a story told by his father, Andy, who maintains his son’s innocence until the very end. He played Jacob to the perfect tone, never giving away any hints with his own thoughts about Jacob’s innocence or guilt in this crime, something he established with himself before beginning work on the series. He remained stoic, authentic, and true to Jacob and his story. His performance seemed almost effortless, taking on the challenge of playing a boy undergoing unimaginable circumstances, which is a credit to his skill as an actor, particularly of his age. This series solidified that he has a bright career ahead of him.
One could argue there is no more important character to Defending Jacob than Laurie Barber, and Michelle Dockery played Laurie’s spiral into despair with ingenuity and believability. Out of all of our players, Laurie is the one only one who really, thoroughly changes throughout the months of Jacob’s trial, and her performance in episode 8 particularly is worthy of the awards she will surely be nominated for. She plays in those quiet moments, needing nothing more than her eyes to convey the war raging inside of her mind, and you feel Laurie’s struggles. While Laurie may not be the most likable character in the show, she performs the struggles of a wife and mother losing it all skillfully and nuanced, making the climax of Laurie’s arc almost inevitable, which is no easy task.
Our main player, Andy Barber, played by Chris Evans, steals the show. His performance is masterful, proving his finesse and expertise as a tactician to the highest degree. He had a little more to prove heading into this project, his history as the iconic Captain America shrouding audiences to the true skills he possesses that weren’t used in his tenure as the shield-tossing superhero. Of course, fans of Evans will recognize these skills from smaller projects taken on by the actor throughout his nine years with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but this performance ranks amongst the top of his hidden gems such as Puncture and Snowpiercer. A key to bringing Andy, and his struggles, to life is playing the character in two different time periods, each with very different circumstances. He brings both versions of Andy Barber to life with heartbreaking expressions and changes in small things such as posture and tone, leading audiences on a hunt throughout the series to find just what had broken him to the shell of a man we see in current times. This is his breakout performance in his post-Marvel career, proving what some have known for a long time, that he possesses the range and skill for any task thrown at him — it’s time to forget about Captain America, Chris Evans is here to stay.
As noted above, the key to this series was not only the story, but the silences in between. Evans and Dockery excel in these quiet moments, communicating struggles and emotions between husband and wife, father and mother, emotions few will ever experience. A key to the successes in these moments is not only the acting, but the writing. The script was beautifully transcribed to fit these small moments in, focusing our attention not so much on the murder, but the family, and the horrors of their circumstances and just how quickly the facade of perfection can fall to shambles.
Defending Jacob is a show not only for fans of true crime, but of dramas, thrillers, and everything in between. It keeps you guessing, its twists and turns maintaining until the final moments, but the beautiful thing about it is just how much is left to audience interpretation. There are many sides and stances to take throughout the series, and while some questions don’t get answered, they don’t have to. Everyone will defend their own story about Jacob and the Barbers, and there truly are not many stories out there that award the differing interpretations of the details as much as Defending Jacob.
It would a shock and shame to not see this series make the rounds in the award seasons to come, both for the show and its cast. We’ll be keeping an eye for Emmys and beyond for Apple TV+ and this team.
Defending Jacob is available in its entirety exclusively on Apple TV+.