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‘Defending Jacob’: Addictive mystery series keeps us guessing

Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery do strong work in latest addition to the genre of lurid crime among the upper class.

When the teen son (Jaeden Martell, center) of an assistant district attorney (Chris Evans) is suspected of murder, his mother (Michelle Dockery) and father are shocked in “Defending Jacob.”
Apple TV+

They’re steamy and lurid crime soap operas, featuring beautiful people with ugly secrets, often set against the backdrop of outwardly idyllic upper-class comfort and success.

The genre includes past and present streaming series such as “Big Little Lies” (HBO), “The Affair” (Showtime), “Little Fires Everywhere” (Hulu), “When the Streetlights Go On” (Quibi) — and now “Defending Jacob” (Apple TV+), an addictive murder mystery with terrific performances, some chilling twists and turns — and a shocking finale that veers close to flying off the rails but is kinda great given everything that has already transpired.

“Defending Jacob” is based on the 2012 crime novel by William Landay. Showrunner and co-writer Mark Bomback (“Unstoppable,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) faithfully adapts many of the plot points of the source work but makes two major changes late in the game; I’m not convinced either is an improvement. Still, on balance, this is a well-paced series that ladles out red herrings and legitimate clues in equal balance as we’re kept guessing.

Chris Evans (“Captain America”) is Andy Barber, a handsome and successful assistant district attorney in Newton, Massachusetts, and Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary on “Downton Abbey”) is his beautiful wife Laurie, who works at a daycare facility for at-risk youth and is a popular figure in the community. Happily married for nearly 20 years, the Barbers dote on their only child: 14-year-old Jacob (Jaeden Martell), who’s almost unsettlingly reserved and is usually buried in his cell phone or video games, which pretty much makes him a typical eighth grader. Andy drives an Audi and Laurie has a Range Rover, and they live in a meticulously appointed suburban home on a quiet, tree-lined street, and by all appearances theirs is the classic American family dream come true.

The Barbers and the community as a whole are rocked when 14-year-old Ben Rifkin, a classmate of Jacob’s, is found stabbed to death in the woods not far from the Barbers’ home. As the star prosecutor in the DA’s office, Andy is put in charge of the case. He assures his boss (Sakina Jaffrey) it’s not a conflict of interest, as Jacob (who seems curiously unaffected by the news) has told his father he hardly knew Ben. It’s a big school. They were classmates but not friends.

“Defending Jacob” perfectly captures the dominance of social media in the lives of Jacob and his friends, who text about the murder, group chat about the murder, Insta about the murder, post gossip, etc., etc., while going through rituals such as attending a candlelight vigil for Ben. As Jacob says to his father after one such gathering, it’s as if his peers are pretending to be grief-stricken because they know that’s the way they’re supposed to behave.

At times we flash forward to 10 months after the tragic events, with Andy’s fellow assistant district attorney and protégé-turned-rival Neal Logiudice (Pablo Schreiber) grilling Andy in front of a grand jury. It’s not until very late in the story that we learn exactly why Andy is under questioning. Meanwhile, evidence is pointing to Jacob as a prime suspect in the case. Turns out Jacob DID know Ben, and Ben had been bullying Jacob, and oh by the way Jacob has a knife. Every time Andy and Laurie express shock to Jacob and question why he hasn’t been honest with them, he shrugs it off and says it’s no big deal and they shouldn’t be worried. Young Jaeden Martell is a natural, and he portrays Jacob in a way that has us convinced he’s a sociopath — or maybe he’s just a withdrawn, socially awkward and misunderstood kid. After all, there’s nothing in his past to indicate he’s capable of such brutality — or is there?

Andy Barber (Chris Evans) needs a favor from a detective (Betty Gabriel) on “Defending Jacob.”
Apple TV+

The great J.K. Simmons returns to his “Oz” roots as Andy’s estranged father, who’s been rotting in prison for a heinous crime and hasn’t seen his son in 30 years. Cherry Jones is a quietly powerful presence as the esteemed defense attorney hired by the Barbers. Daniel Henshall is unnerving as Leonard Patz, a sex offender who has pictures of Ben on his cell phone. Betty Gabriel is a force as Duffy, a detective who has partnered with Andy on dozens of investigations over the years but bristles when he leans on their “friendship” to call in a favor: “We weren’t friends. The first time I was in your house was with a search warrant.” It’s one of the many subtle observations in the series about underlying class and race difference.

Chris Evans does some of the best work of his career as Andy, whose job is seeking the truth but whose life has been built on a foundation of deceit. He expertly conveys Andy’s desperate, ferocious need to protect his son, his genuine love for his wife — and the haunting memories that jolt him awake in the middle of the night. Michelle Dockery has some showcase moments as well, e.g., when the camera stays on her face during a stunning courtroom revelation, and she tries to remain expressionless even as her eyes tell us she’s in a state of near shock.

I can’t defend all the late plot machinations in “Defending Jacob,” but it’ll keep you in its grips throughout.