The nature of evil — where it originates, why it takes hold of some so potently — is among the richest questions fiction can investigate. Which makes a show that aims at it and falls short of saying anything real a double disappointment. It’s not just that “Defending Jacob,” a new limited series on Apple TV Plus, has nothing to say — it’s that it set out to say so much.
Chris Evans stars here as Andy Barber, an assistant district attorney in greater Boston whose idyllic life is interrupted when his son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is accused of killing a classmate. Together with his wife Laurie (Michelle Dockery, a long way from “Downton Abbey”), Andy struggles to cope with the idea that his beloved son might be a monster; alone, he undertakes a mission of what he perceives as justice. On the case and later removed from it, Andy struggles to manipulate his colleagues away from the direction the evidence seems to point, leveraging his position and his relationships with colleagues in otder to protect Jacob. And in his downtime, he casts out a line to his own incarcerated father (J. K. Simmons), less to make peace after years of estrangement than to probe whether or not Jacob might be genetically predisposed to evil.
Andy’s attempt to jerry-rig the justice system to give his son protections unavailable to others is compelling enough stuff for drama, if objectionable in a way the show doesn’t seem to get. (The only quibble anyone meaningfully raises is that his wheedling, manipulative behavior is not in keeping with what had been his arm’s length approach to a colleague played by Betty Gabriel — not that his child, say, is the beneficiary of advantages hers, given her race, cannot access.) The curiosity about an “evil gene,” which extends into the courtroom proceedings against Jacob, is unserious and tends to provide a goofy counterpoint. There are Pablo Schreiber and Cherry Jones, two real and gifted actors, squaring off about whether or not a grandfather the child has never met and had not previously known about might have somehow predisposed him to kill. It’s not that this debate could never happen — all sorts of inane things happen in courtrooms. It’s that its brutal goofiness feels utterly at odds with the glossy, high-polish staging.
Generally, the talent assembled here feels left out to dry: Dockery, who proved in “Godless” she can play against type, cannot, perhaps, extend herself quite as far as “surprisingly hard-edged Bostonian.” (This regional accent claims another victim.) And Evans, admirably trying to stretch beyond Captain America, has an inherent yellow-lab geniality that doesn’t mesh with the tone director Morten Tyldum is aiming at. You don’t believe this guy has had a dark night of the soul in his life — an early afternoon, maybe, but even that’s a stretch.
Up to its final moments, this limited series strains for impact. But it’s unserious about the aspects of its story that are genuinely potentially interesting, and — up through a final twist that’s at least audacious — sillier than one might have any reason to expect. If shows could succeed on good intentions alone, this effort might be among the best of recent TV; in practice, it’s a bit hard to defend.