You’ve seen “Defending Jacob” before, most likely. The new eight-episode procedural thriller starring Chris Evans is about the fatal stabbing of a white suburban teen boy and the suspects — notably including his classmate, another white teen boy named Jacob Barber — whom the police like for the crime. Ugly old secrets emerge along the way, which is strewn with startling evidence, angry sidebars with the judge, media prejudgment, and a red herring or two. Once again, TV’s upper-middle-class America, the aspirational homeland of open-plan kitchens and top school systems, is stained with blood.
You’ve seen it before, perhaps, but don’t let that stop you. “Defending Jacob,” based on the 2012 novel by Boston author William Landay, is gripping enough in its own way, despite some of the familiar moves, and the acting is consistently fine. Set in Newton and filmed in Massachusetts, it provides Evans with a good role as dogged, respected assistant DA Andy Barber, who’s on the murder investigation — until his son becomes an official suspect. One of Jacob’s fingerprints is found on the dead boy, and, to add to the suspicion, Jacob has a bad habit of posting sloppily incriminating comments on social media. Suddenly, this tight, prominent family of three, including wife and mother Laurie Barber, played by Michelle Dockery, are local pariahs with paparazzi lurking in their front yard.
In some cases, a crime series can be more than the sum of its whodunit parts — “The Night Of,” for example, which is both a compelling thriller and a critical commentary on the workings of the American justice system. “Sharp Objects,” too, solved a crime or two but simultaneously examined the dangerous legacy of female oppression. “Defending Jacob,” whose first three episodes premiere on Friday on Apple TV+, doesn’t try for that kind of big-picture approach. Instead, it aims to bring us not only into the home of the accused, but also into the stormy feelings of his parents as they struggle with the idea that their 14-year-old, his face only just taking on the angles of adulthood, may be a cold-blooded killer.
The narrative of “Defending Jacob,” written for TV by Mark Bomback with a few alterations to the novel’s story line, is jagged, like the murder weapon, and gradual. As the main story of the investigation and Jacob’s trial unfolds, the action repeatedly flashes forward to the months after the trial, as a weary Andy faces a courtroom interrogation from his former colleague, Pablo Schreiber’s snake-like Neal Logiudice, about his behavior during the investigation. It’s not clear why Andy is testifying until late in the series, and that second mystery doubles the already thick dramatic tone.
As Jacob, Jaeden Martell is remarkable. He does what Edward Norton did way back in “Primal Fear,” expertly keeping us guessing about whether or not he is a psychopath. At moments, Martell looks like an ordinary boy trying to seem more grown up by saying cynical things and acting aloof. At other times, he seems terrified behind his eyes, or lost in denial, or too entitled to take the accusation seriously. All along, no matter how hard you scrutinize him, you can’t quite figure him out. The script doesn’t bring us into his psyche, in the way it takes us on the journey of his parents; he’s the trigger for the drama, which is ultimately more about his parents and their shaken faith.
Dockery is excellent. You can see Laurie’s sense of trust erode bit by bit, and Dockery makes each increment of that process clear. She was wonderfully cranky in “Downton Abbey,” and a compelling hot mess in “Good Behavior,” and here she is intriguingly haunted, the recurring memory of an incident from Jacob’s childhood working to shake her loyalty. “Defending Jacob” plays out on her face, as she bounces between guilt and doubt. While Andy tries to solve the problem by conducting his own detective work, she clings to her maternal intuition. By the way, J.K. Simmons is on the show, too, in a role I won’t identify to avoid spoilers, and he works wonders in only a few sharp scenes. And Cherry Jones arrives like Mary Poppins as Jacob’s attorney, bringing hope to the Barbers and positive energy to the series.
Alfred Hitchcock worked the theme of suspicion between a man and a woman in “Suspicion”; “Defending Jacob” moves that theme to the even more deeply seated bond between parents and their beloved child. Whether or not Jacob is a killer, the uncertainty that strikes his parents is in itself a tragedy, and “Defending Jacob” drives that home effectively.
Starring: Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery, Jaeden Martell, J.K. Simmons, Cherry Jones, Pablo Schreiber, Sakina Jaffrey, Betty Gabriel
On: Apple TV+. The first three of eight episodes are available Friday; new episodes premiere weekly thereafter on Fridays.