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Chris Evans Plays A Prosecutor In 'Defending Jacob' Series


Superhero movie star Chris Evans plays a more down-to-earth role in "Defending Jacob." It's a limited series on Apple TV Plus about a prosecutor whose son is accused of murder. NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans says the show, which debuts today, fits into a troubling trend in television.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: There is a growing genre of TV drama in our streaming-saturated times that I have given a name - the almost-quality drama. Now, these shows have big stars, lofty concepts, gritty premises and huge ambitions, but they're not quite good enough to be the next "Handmaid's Tale" or "Succession." If there were fewer streaming services around, they might not have even gotten made, which brings us to Apple TV Plus's "Defending Jacob" and the character played by its star, Chris Evans.


CHRIS EVANS: (As Andrew Barber) Andrew Steven Barber.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Could you state your occupation, please?

EVANS: (As Andrew Barber) I was an assistant district attorney in this building for 10 years - was.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) So you're no longer employed as a prosecutor for Middlesex County. Is that correct?

EVANS: (As Andrew Barber) Yes. That's right.

DEGGANS: Andy Barber is sitting in some sort of proceeding, answering questions from a supercilious prosecutor about the worst event in his family's life. Playing Barber, Evans hides the chiseled good looks that made him such a hit as Marvel's Captain America behind a bushy, brown beard and an air of defeated resignation. But let's not move too fast here. First, consider the crime that set all this off.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We're reporting live from Cold Spring Park, where earlier today the body of a 14-year-old boy was found.

DEGGANS: Evans' Andy Barber is called to the scene by police and filled in.


BETTY GABRIEL: (As Pam Duffy) Name's Benjamin Rifkin - 14 years old, stabbed three times in the chest.

EVANS: (As Andrew Barber) He's Jacob's year at Archer. Jesus Christ - his poor parents.

GABRIEL: (As Pam Duffy) I take it you know them.

EVANS: (As Andrew Barber) No, not that well.

DEGGANS: That's right. The murdered boy went to the same school as his son Jacob. And then the worst happens as his boss, the district attorney, informs him.


SAKINA JAFFREY: (As Lynn Canavan) The print we lifted from the victim's sweatshirt is from your son.

EVANS: (As Andrew Barber) Wait. What?

JAFFREY: (As Lynn Canavan) From the angle, they think maybe he reached over and grabbed the victim by his sweatshirt, leaving a print on the tag.

EVANS: (As Andrew Barber) There's got to be an explanation. They go to the same school. Jacob's in his class.

JAFFREY: (As Lynn Canavan) Yes. We know that.

EVANS: (As Andrew Barber) This doesn't mean anything.

JAFFREY: (As Lynn Canavan) We know, Andy.

DEGGANS: Jacob gets arrested on suspicion of murder, and the show begins to tell the story of its title at the end of the second episode. Now, it's easy to ding "Defending Jacob" for being too long and drawn out, but there is so much more that annoys me about this narrative. Prosecutors prosecute cases, but Evans' Andy Barber initially leads the investigation like Jerry Orbach from "Law And Order." Then after getting yanked off the case, he plunges into the investigation on his own despite the fact that cops could accuse him of intimidating witnesses. The subsequent plot twists feel like a mash-up of three or four different murder mystery movies.

Andy's wife Laurie, played by "Downton Abbey" alum Michelle Dockery, is that most annoying of stereotypes - a mom who's lost faith in her child. Here she tells a member of her son's defense team about a time when Jacob almost hurt a kid when he was five years old.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Do you think Jacob was trying to harm this other boy?

MICHELLE DOCKERY: (As Laurie Barber) No, I don't. Honestly, I don't. But what if he was and I just didn't look closely enough? Then, in a way, isn't this all my fault?

DEGGANS: "Defending Jacob" is trying so hard to be surprising and substantive that it almost feels petty to point out all the ways it is not. But what is obvious here is that Apple opened up its wallet without much idea how to make a distinctive show that truly demonstrates what Apple TV Plus can bring to subscribers.

I'm Eric Deggans.


Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.

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