DVD Review: Defending Jacob

By: Chris Chan

(WARNING: Some oblique spoilers follow.)

Based on the terrific bestselling novel by William Landay, Defending Jacob is the story of a family both torn apart and bound together by a shocking accusation.  As the eight-part miniseries opens, Andy and Laurie Barber (Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery) are living the dream.  Andy’s an Assistant District Attorney and Laurie’s working for a prominent charity, and they both living in a very nice house in a Boston suburb that’s supposed to be safe and peaceful.  Everything–as it often does in stories like this–crumbles when a teenaged boy is murdered, and Andy and Laurie’s young son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is charged with the crime. Suspended from his job and ostracized from the community, Andy launches his own investigation into the crime, fighting off hostile neighbors, an aggressive press, the justice system he once worked for, the dark secrets of his past, and Laurie’s own doubts about Jacob’s innocence. As the story progresses, it’s hard to tell which of the last two problems will prove more injurious to the Barbers.

The miniseries is just about the right length, with the narrative rarely dragging, and the show is about eighty percent faithful to the book, and for the most part the changes don’t harm the production. First and most notable is the characterization of Jacob, who in the book was more frequently portrayed as a “bad seed,” but who might have simply been a troubled kid rather than a killer. Martell’s version of the title character often seems like a kid completely out of his depth, possibly on the autism spectrum, definitely more scared than malicious. Two characters–a police investigator and Jacob’s defense lawyer–have been gender-swapped, and in the former case, race-swapped as well.  Betty Gabriel is very good as the detective Pam Duffy, but Cherry Jones is the series’ co-MVP as defense attorney Joanna Klein.  The other brightest star of the cast is J.K. Simmons as Andy’s estranged father.  Simmons is one of the few actors who can play both amiable and menacing with equal levels of convincingness. I will not reveal which character trait he embodies in this series. Aside from a few additional storylines to flesh out the personal lives of the central characters, the other big change is the ending. Some viewers the level of ambiguity disappointing, but that’s true to the book as well.  The fates of some of the central characters have been changed, and the final moments are more hopeful and less bleak than the novel.

When watching the first episode, something seemed off about the viewing experience, but I couldn’t put my finger on it until a little while afterwards.  The sets, particularly the Barber home, seem more like model homes than places where actual people live.  The gray tones and squareness are reminiscent of Apple stores (a point made all the stronger due to the fact that the series aired on Apple TV+), and the teenagers’ bedrooms are immaculate, with the corners of the beds capable of passing military inspection, unlike almost any adolescent boy’s bedroom in America.  When the victim’s bedroom is supposedly left just as it was when he died, it adds an ersatz tarnish to what’s supposed to be a devastating moment with the dead kid’s father.  I know that the seeming perfectness of the Barber home is supposed to stand in contrast to the devastation of the coming months upon their personal lives, but when the house feels like a set, it distracts from everything else.

As a mystery, Defending Jacob’s choice to limit its pool of suspects may not have been the best choice.  In the book, the only real suspects with a motive are Jacob, a local pedophile, and a third character who is never seriously considered as a suspect, leading the savvy reader to suspect a big reveal at the end, only to have their suspicions remain unaddressed.  In the adaptation, this third, overlooked suspect is briefly targeted, but is never really cleared, and the fact that Andy dropped this investigative thread seems odd.  It would have been easy (and not distracting if handled properly) to cast suspicion on a few other characters as well.  Ultimately, the series focuses more on characterization and mental strain than whodunit, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

In the end, the absence of certainty and catharsis makes the show feel rather incomplete, even though a lack of a solid ending is totally realistic.  It just goes to show how certain conventions can enhance the viewing experience.  Defending Jacob is well-acted, well-paced, and overall, a very fine viewing experience.  It just lacks that emotional climax, leaving the sense that there needs to be a little something more.

–Chris Chan

Defending Jacob

Paramount, 2021

DVD $25.99; Blu-Ray $34.99