How well can a parent ever really know a child?
Although Apple TV Plus’ new limited series “Defending Jacob” has a murder mystery at the center of the story, it is the larger, more relatable themes about how love for a family member can be tested that writer and executive producer Mark Bomback was most interested in exploring.
“I have four children and I live in the suburbs of New York, and my central preoccupation is how much I’m succeeding or messing up with raising my kids. Really the mysteries that come with being a parent is a subject that I’m fascinated with, so the fact that that was the underlying human story in this particular thriller, that was what really put it over the top,” he tells Variety.
Bomback created his eight-episode series by adapting William Landay’s 2012 novel of the same name. The novel was told in the past tense, first-person perspective of Andy Barber, an assistant district attorney who narrated recent events with his family from a grand jury room. His son, the titular Jacob, had been accused of and tried for the murder of one of his teenage classmates, and Andy was standing by his son, despite some of the terrible things that happened as a result of suspicion falling onto him.
“What I loved about the setup and what I loved about the book is, in a way, you’re a prisoner to your love for your child. There’s only so much you are able to be a judge and a jury for your own child — you are blinded and trapped by your love,” Bomback says.
In the series, Chris Evans portrays Andy; Michelle Dockery is Laurie Barber, Andy’s wife and Jacob’s mother; and Jaeden Martell plays Jacob. The show expands the point of view of the story out from Andy to include how Laurie sees their son and his potential action, as well. And although the show keeps the grand jury room element of the story, much of the action unfolds linearly, which also affects how characters, and the audience by extension, processes potential evidence against Jacob.
“In terms of how guilty or innocent he is, it’s almost inconsequential. I’m trying to keep that sensation of being a parent, and I want you to constantly be teetering — so just when you think, ‘Gee, is it possible?’ he’ll do something unexpectedly sweet — and vice versa,” Bomback explains. “It’s more important how guilty or innocent his parents believe he is. What the show is really about are the limitations to ever really knowing your child.”
Bomback admits that his “very, very first draft of the pilot” had Jacob written as a darker character than what ended up in the final cut. But after advice from Matt Reeves, who Bomback worked with on “The Planet of the Apes” franchise, he tweaked the character so he wasn’t someone “who was easily read and wearing his emotions on his sleeve.”
“Kids, because they are still developing, are capable of awfulness and of sweetness, and I was trying to capture that with the character,” he continues. “There’s a beat in the first episode after the shiva where he tells his dad he thinks the kids were acting phony — like how they were supposed to act. And that’s something I could picture my kids saying in confidence to me. Is there something dark about that? Sure, but there’s also something quite true about that. That to me is the point of the story: to what degree is this just normal teen angst and to what extent are we dealing with someone who has problems and is capable of true violence?”
To fully flesh out the mystery part of “Defending Jacob,” Bomback couldn’t just have one suspect. So although the adaptation does follow the book’s plot of seeing Jacob arrested and on trial, his father’s steadfast belief that his son is innocent leads him to try to find alternative perpetrators. One is a local pedophile named Leonard Patz (Daniel Henshall), a character who is featured in the book as well. In this version, though, Bomback shares he wanted to “spotlight” Leonard a little bit more, as well as “build out” the character of Matt McGrath (Hale Lytle), a teenager who had accused Leonard of groping him in a library.
“We’ve seen that before, where the neighbor is a sex offender, so I was trying to avoid cliches, and get very specific with him in some ways, in terms of what his hobbies are and where he works,” says Bomback. “He has this weird habit of watching people as he works, and he has this habit of smiling along even though he isn’t part of the conversation. I was trying to make him as interesting as possible and as unique as possible to avoid the tropes.”
Additionally, Bomback was interested in seeing what Jacob’s relationship was like with his peers, so he brought Derek (Ben Taylor) and Sarah (Jordan Alexa Davis) into the fray as friends of his. In the book, Sarah is a “good samaritan,” Bomback notes, who shares some information on the case with the police, but Bomback wanted to more fully explore why she would want to get so involved.
“What I really owe the book, and by extension, fans of the books, is to mimic in some way the experience you had while reading it,” Bomback says. “I don’t feel a particular version has to be faithful to any one element of the show, but I do feel that when you come away from the show, you should have a similar reaction to it than you did when you read the book. If you felt conflicted about certain things, I wanted you to still feel conflicted, and if you felt connected to certain parts of the story, I wanted that to be what you still felt. But beyond that, my job is really just to tell that story in the most engaging way for [screen].”
“Defending Jacob” premieres April 24 on Apple TV Plus.