“Defending Jacob” is an eight-episode murder mystery from Apple TV Plus with a full catalog of twists and an impressive cast that includes Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery, Cherry Jones and J.K. Simmons. It’s also Exhibit A for a question that’s becoming increasingly unavoidable: Why does everything have to be a television series?
The show, whose first three episodes premiere Friday, was created and written by Mark Bomback, who has some high-quality experience in the movies: He was a writer and executive producer of “Dawn of” and “War for” the Planet of the Apes, two of the best thinking-person’s science-fiction action films of recent years.
And in “Defending Jacob,” in which Evans plays a prosecutor whose 14-year-old son is accused of murdering a classmate, Bomback has constructed an entertaining psychological thriller that takes some clever turns. If it had come out in the 1980s or ’90s, when a lot of stories like this did, it might have starred Harrison Ford or Sharon Stone. It definitely would have been around 120 to 150 minutes long.
But Bomback, working with the director Morten Tyldum, has stretched the proceedings out to 400 minutes. And while it means we get to see more of Jones and Simmons — and of the young actor Jaeden Martell, who’s good as the teenage suspect — it’s mostly a case of subtraction by addition.
You can see why the 2012 novel by William Landay on which the show is based looked like a good candidate for mini-series expansionism. It operates on multiple time lines, with a framing device in which the prosecutor-father, Andy Barber (Evans), testifies to a grand jury in a future case whose details are kept from us.
More important, it’s an ambitious attempt to combine a mystery with a faulty-parenting drama. The suspicion and eventual arrest of Jacob Barber (Martell) in the stabbing of a popular student who bullied him cracks apart his seemingly perfect suburban family, and the clues and revelations of the murder investigation are paralleled by the lies and shifting allegiances among Andy, Jacob and their wife and mother, Laurie (Dockery).
Evans, whose ability to make decent characters entertaining is manifest in his Captain America screen roles, establishes Andy’s goodness and then undercuts it, revealing the arrogance and anger below the smooth surface. In a different show, Andy’s aggressive rule-skirting and manipulations as he tries to prove Jacob’s innocence would be a demonstration of middle-class white privilege, but here it’s part of an ultimately poisonous family dynamic: Andy won’t consider that Jacob might be guilty, but Laurie, increasingly, will.
Bomback, Tyldum and the actors adroitly manage the mechanics of the story, as the walls close in around Jacob and a jealous colleague of Andy’s (played, a little hammily, by Pablo Schreiber) pushes the case despite the existence of another plausible suspect. Jones is good as Jacob’s brisk, deceptively folksy lawyer, a role custom-made for her, and Simmons is equally effective in a smaller part as Andy’s father, whose situation is one of the plot’s many late-breaking curveballs.
It all goes on too long, though. Part of the problem is repetition — Evans and Dockery can give emotional heft to the themes of unconditional parental love, but after a while they’re just having the same argument over and over.
The other part is plausibility: Twists that are fine if you don’t have to think about them too hard start to bother you when they stretch across episodes. All the little things that don’t quite make sense — and a story like this always has its share — are harder to overlook. The series has a consistent tone of somber deliberation that might just be Tyldum’s style but plays as a way to hold together a story that’s been stretched too far.
“Defending Jacob” has great ingredients, but the portion size is off.