Chris Evans might not have a shield in “Defending Jacob,” but the eight-part miniseries – based on a bestselling novel – is all about shielding his son. Well cast and twisty, it’s an earnest if mostly undistinguished effort, one that relies heavily on the one-time Avenger’s star power in serving its mission to bring viewers to Apple TV+.
Evans flexes different acting muscles as Andy Barber, an assistant district attorney who is introduced in court, looking like a broken man. The narrative then flashes back 10 months, to happier times with his wife Laurie (Michelle Dockery) and their 14-year-old son Jacob (“It’s” Jaeden Martell), before one of his classmates turns up murdered.
Andy is assigned the case, which he begins to investigate despite the somewhat uncomfortable proximity of his kid to the event. That all changes when Jacob becomes the prime suspect, leading to a trial, unsettling revelations about his son and all the media scrutiny that goes with being swept up in a high-profile crime.
Andy’s experience and relationships obviously create discomfort as he joins the fray, telling Jacob, “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” But Laurie’s faith seems shakier, especially as new information keeps dribbling out, making them wonder if they know their child as well as they think.
Adapted by writer Mark Bomback and Norwegian director Morten Tyldum from the 2012 book, “Defending Jacob” features inordinately good actors in smallish roles, including J.K. Simmons as Andy’s estranged father – in prison for murder, making people wonder if the apple skipped a generation in falling from the tree – Cherry Jones as Jacob’s defense attorney, and Pablo Schreiber as Andy’s colleague now tasked with prosecuting the case.
Still, not all the wrinkles add up especially well, the story feels awfully familiar – limited-series mysteries about murdered teens have been a pretty well-traveled road since “The Killing” – and the courtroom action bogs down a bit during the later stages.
Evans, who also wears a producer’s hat, is quite good, if perhaps a little distracting (that’s one very physically fit D.A.) every time he’s shown around the house in a T-shirt.
The main source of frustration is that the story, purposefully, provides so little sense of the accused – an approach intended to evoke uncertainty among the audience as well as his parents, which has the perhaps unintended effect of blunting the drama.
Apple continues to feel its way in this new programming arena, and as premium TV goes, aligning yourself with big names is seldom a bad way to go in meeting one key goal – namely, garnering attention.
“You can be a good man, or you can be a good father,” Andy is told at one point.
“Defending Jacob” doesn’t face that daunting choice, but it is, at best, just a pretty good miniseries.
“Defending Jacob” premieres April 24 on Apple TV+.