See Jake Gyllenhaal in Apple TV's 'Presumed Innocent' Trailer

Less than a month after his generally unnecessary Netflix adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, David E. Kelley continues his visitations with the Ghosts of Literary Phenomena Past with Apple TV+‘s eight-episode take on Scott Turow‘s Presumed Innocent.

Presumed Innocent was released in 1987, and the twisty character study of Rusty Sabich, a prosecutor who finds himself on the other side of the justice system when he’s accused of murdering a former colleague, breathed new life into dramatic jurisprudence. It was a smash hit, as was Alan J. Pakula’s solid 1990 big-screen version, which kickstarted a tiny subgenre of Chicago-set films in which Harrison Ford either did or didn’t kill the woman he was sleeping with. Both the book and the film were accused of either misogyny or myopia in their treatment of their female characters; both were products of a moment at which male insecurities about women in the workforce were running rampant. 

Presumed Innocent

The Bottom Line

Fast-moving, but lacking in control and context.

Airdate: Wednesday, June 12 (Apple TV+)
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Ruth Negga, Bill Camp, O-T Fagbenle, Chase Infiniti, Elizabeth Marvel, Nana Mensah, Renate Reinsve, Peter Sarsgaard and Kingston Rumi Southwick
Creator: David E. Kelley

Tackling zeitgeist-y properties long after the hype has subsided can be a good way to find clarity through distance, or to impose fresh colors on a familiar story through a revised context. What’s confusing about these two adaptations is that Kelley has essentially failed to do either thing. 

Unlike A Man in Full, though, Presumed Innocent at least captures the property’s tone, putting Kelley back on the sturdy ground of a story that is primarily a legal thriller, rather than having him attempt to retrofit other stories — see A Man in Full and Big Little Lies — that were not legal thrillers by design. If nothing else, Presumed Innocent charges along, starting within the structure of the book and branching out in ways that sometimes help tremendously — weird how the female characters feel more developed as people when given more story time — and sometimes do not. Kelley’s love of legal contrivance pushes Presumed Innocent far off the rails by the six or seventh episodes, but critics weren’t sent the finale, which is the ultimate proving ground for shows of this type. Maybe it returns to the rails by the end? 

The basic refresher for those who don’t know the story: Rusty (Jake Gyllenhaal) is Chicago’s chief deputy prosecutor under Raymond Horgan (Bill Camp). Rusty has a lovely wife (Ruth Negga‘s Barbara), an art gallery manager for irrelevant reasons, two exemplary children (Chase Infiniti’s Jaden and Kingston Rumi Southwick’s Kyle) and a generally good life. 

Then Carolyn Polhemus (Renate Reinsve), another rising star in the prosecutor’s office, is found murdered. The case is assigned to Rusty because Raymond, in the middle of a contentious election against publicity-loving co-worker Nico Della Guardia (O-T Fagbenle) and his sneering deputy, Tommy Molto (Peter Sarsgaard), needs a swift investigation and conviction.

The thing that Raymond doesn’t know is that Rusty had been having an affair with Carolyn — a sweaty, sexy affair featured in sweaty, sexy flashbacks. He was, in fact, obsessed with Carolyn, and once evidence begins to emerge, Rusty is the only viable suspect. As his professional life is being torn asunder and his family pulled apart — Barbara knew about the affair, but not the depth of Rusty’s obsession — Rusty races to prove he isn’t a criminal in a system he used to manipulate.

In Gyllenhaal, Presumed Innocent has a well-selected lead. With his soulful puppy dog eyes and eagerly displayed abs — he spends at least a quarter of the show in the shower or having a sweaty, sexy affair — he cuts a figure whom viewers want to forgive for almost anything. You aren’t supposed to like Rusty here, just as you weren’t supposed to like him on the page or in the Harrison Ford incarnation. You’re just supposed to think that being a philandering putz isn’t the same thing as being a murderer, and Gyllenhaal steers into the “philandering putz” side, reconciling versions of Rusty that are sleazy, slightly scary and occasionally sweetly paternal (if the show has a revelation, it’s newcomer Infinity, whose scenes with Gyllenhaal and Negga have a quiet weight that balances the rest of the series’ bombast).

This Presumed Innocent lets Negga flesh out Barbara’s motivations in attempting to hold her family together, and I’m not sure many actors would be as capable of conveying the necessary ambiguity entirely in reactions. She wears pain, betrayal and love as matching accessories, which makes her less of a put-upon victim than wives in this genre tend to be. She has a flirtation with a hunky bartender (Sarunas J. Jackson) that doesn’t quite work, but the effort is an improvement and she has things to play.

I’m less convinced that Kelley and company do right by Reinsve. The remarkable Worst Person in the World star absolutely adds value to a nothing role, giving Carolyn enough indications of sentiment and intelligence that she doesn’t exist exclusively as an irresistible temptation for Rusty. Just mostly. In other words, Presumed Innocent benefits from Reinsve’s presence, even if she doesn’t benefit from this gig.

The same can be said for a lot of pieces in the overqualified supporting cast. If Sarsgaard’s Tommy finally gets nuance in the second half of the season, it’s no excuse for the half in which he’s almost doing a sneering parody of a typically lizard-like Sarsgaard turn. More interesting is Fagbenle, if only to figure out what accent/voice the Handmaid’s Tale Emmy nominee is doing. Other overqualified supporting players include Lily Rabe as a skeptical therapist, a wonderfully authoritative Noma Dumezweni as a trial judge and Elizabeth Marvel as Raymond’s wife Lorraine.

Actually, what justifies Marvel’s presence is the opportunity to watch her very pleasant chemistry with real-life hubby Camp, who is so clearly the sort of character actor Kelley has always loved. After stealing the focus from Jeff Daniels in A Man in Full with belligerent bluster and from Gyllenhaal here with dignified bluster, Camp should probably just be digitally inserted into old episodes of all of Kelley’s shows.

Then again, Camp is part of some of the more ludicrous beats in the sixth and seventh episodes (and the wildest moment of humor in a series that, otherwise, would be yet another needlessly somber Apple TV+ star vehicle), as Kelley abandons the established engine of the original property in favor of several of his patented “Isn’t the legal system WILD!” gambits. 

The problem, I guess, is that Presumed Innocent is so defined by its climactic twist that Kelley has to find more zigging and zagging to stretch things over eight hours, however briskly directors Anne Sewitsky and Greg Yaitanes move the proceedings along.

Certainly the story hasn’t been expanded or enhanced with contemporary resonance. Any time the show nods at anything in the real world — references to Chicago’s murder rate, Barbara reminding her husband of the pressures his biracial children face, a weird press conference in which Tommy mentions improprieties in the financial sector — it’s an uncommitted dud. It doesn’t help that despite maintaining the source material’s setting, the “Chicago” of Presumed Innocent is comically artificial — a whole lot of Los Angeles augmented by generic second unit photography and some wacky drone shots that go askew whenever the case goes similarly catawampus. If that’s not clumsy enough mood-setting, the frequency with which emotionally fraught scenes are set in staged downpours puts the “pathetic” in “pathetic fallacy.” 

For all its late-season ridiculousness, wasted actors and a washed-out aesthetic that represents entirely too much of Apple TV+’s brand, I look forward to eventually watching the finale. A smart upending of the twist from the book and movie could cover for a multitude of sins. Or it just as easily could make me regret the entire overextended, if periodically compelling, journey.

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