While it may seem like a lifetime ago, one year ago today Apple TV+ released its limited series Defending Jacob based on the New York Times Bestselling novel and adapted for television by Mark Bomback.
Directed by Morten Tyldum, it starred Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery, and Jaeden Martell as the Barber family — Andy, Laurie, and Jacob — as a picturesque family living in the suburbs of Boston. Andy, the assistant district attorney of Newton, Mass., and Laurie, a schoolteacher, are prominent, well-liked members of their community and their son Jacob a student at Archer Middle School. Suddenly, tragedy hit this small community. A student of Archer Middle School has been murdered in the park on the way to school. And after a brief investigation, they have one suspect — Jacob.
From all appearances Defending Jacob looked to be another true crime series, exploring the case of a minor being tried as an adult in a heinous crime, his parents trying to maintain his innocence — and it does that — but it was so much more.
The murder and trial took a backseat to the true story; how does a family maintain its foundations against such a vicious storm? As the series wore on we see all of our characters begin to buckle beneath the insurmountable pressure of trying to weather their circumstances and not lose themselves in the process. This was a story about a family, their relationship, and ultimately their secrets, not a crime.
Had this been made into a film versus a series, it would not have seen the success in storytelling that it did. To reach the levels that it needed to be this compelling, nuanced exploration it needed the ability to tell stories in the silence, something that can’t be as easily done in the time restrictions of a film. Could the story have been told in a film? Sure. But would it have been as powerful? Probably not. And that’s where writer Mark Bomback excelled.
Bomback understood that this story wasn’t what it appeared to be at first glance, and he masterfully balanced all the elements to create this well-rounded destruction of not one, but three people and their seemingly unbreakable bond. He and director Morten Tyldum also assembled themselves a cast they knew could give them the performances they needed.
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They got Chris Evans, fresh off the heels of his retirement from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey acclaim, and Jaeden Martell, a name that was being heard more and more leading up to his role as the complicated Jacob Barber. All of these players needed to ability to act convey their inner turmoil without a word, to let themselves succumb to the deterioration of their characters completely. And they did.
Dockery in particular had a challenge before her, as Laurie’s complete spiral into inescapable despair is the main player of this story. When Laurie begins to learn everything she thought she knew and understood about her life, her husband, and her child are not as foolproof as she believed them to be, she reaches new levels of herself she never thought possible. Dockery played into this perfectly, keeping the character hard to like, but easy to sympathize with — a key to Laurie’s role in the story.
When it came to Jacob, Martell began his journey knowing that he could not know what the other characters thought of his own. Since the novel is told from Andy’s point of view, his inner monologue regarding his son and his innocence and perceived characterization are something Martell wanted to avoid to prevent playing into how he was seen through his father’s eyes. So Martell didn’t read the source material, and he was absolutely right to not do so. Somehow he managed to play this child accused of murder so ambiguous to the crime that one would never be able to land on a verdict, even when the evidence seems clear. And while falling into despondency was Laurie’s journey, that ambiguity was Jacob’s, and Martell and his even keeled tone and stoic expressions did just that.
Defending Jacob is a story told through Andy Barber’s eyes, so the role of Andy had to be perfect. A man with secrets, but good intentions, he runs from his past and hides in his future. There’s a certain untold desperation to Andy Barber that had to be portrayed through his actions, his tones, and his expressions, and Evans’ mastery and understanding of this character shine through. There are two versions of Andy that needed to be played, one of them being the character whose life is slowing slipping between his fingers like water, unable to be stopped, and the other, as a man stuck in the drought of his own mistakes. This was no easy task, but Evans quickly proved he did not belong in the stereotype of superhero, proving to audiences far and wide that the end of Captain America would not be the end of his illustrious career.
No impeccable series is complete without a director and cinematographer that can create a series with camera work as chilling and evolving as the subject material. But Tyldum and cinematographer Jonathan Freeman created a visual so stunning and heartbreaking it draws you in. As we mentioned before, so much of this film relied on silent moments, and their work paired with the skill of the actors created such an intimate, at time eerie, environment that feeling the emotion of the scene as a viewer came naturally. They created a perfect world to draw us into.
Another aspect of Defending Jacob that is easily unknown to those who haven’t read the novel, but is deserving of praise is the alteration of two of the main supporting characters. Pam Duffy, played by Betty Gabriel, and Joanna Klein, played by Cherry Garcia, grace the pages of the William Landay novel as men — Paul Duffy and Jonathan Klein. And not only did Bomback make these traditionally white male characters women, he made them a woman of color with Pam and LGBTQ in Joanna. These two women are integral to the plot, the Barbers, and are equally strong on their own, which is consistently missing from so many big projects today.
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While Defending Jacob may have been snubbed — and a true snub it was — in most of the Emmy categories (it did get nominated for Outstanding Cinematography in a Limited Series and Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music) it’s still an outstanding series that fans of drama, true crime, and just plain good television storytelling with beautiful performances and cinematography will enjoy. There are no weak points in this series, it’s strong all the way up until its final fade to black.
You can read our interviews with cinematographer Jonathan Freeman and Neal Loguidice actor Pablo Schreiber, check out our review, or read the episodic recaps. Or better yet, just go re-binge the series currently on Apple TV+. If you don’t have Apple TV+ you’re in luck, you can pre-order the DVD of the series which releases on July 6.