A big, twisty crime-drama series lands on AppleTV+ this weekend. It’s a bit dour, but nicely made with big-time actors. Also this weekend, every living Canadian celebrity and performer takes part in a TV and online event in support of front-line workers fighting COVID-19 across Canada and to raise money for food banks.
This is all good. It could be worse: Over in Britain, more than 30 phone towers have been attacked by people who believe in the conspiracy theory that the rollout of 5G connectivity is linked to the spread of the virus. At least we’re not going on that journey. We are good Canadians, acting responsibly. In the future when we hear someone say, “I need some me-time” we might react with irresponsible derision. But for now we’ll mosey along nicely.
Defending Jacob (AppleTV+ from Friday) is about the terrible dilemma involved in defending your child when that child is accused of a brutal crime. The upshot is this – Andrew Barber (Chris Evans), a district attorney in the Boston area, and his wife Laurie (Michelle Dockery, continuing her long escape from Downton Abbey infamy) are living a nice cozy life in a bourgeois suburb with their teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martell). One day, a schoolmate of Jacob’s is found stabbed to death. Andrew brushes off issues of conflicting interests and leads the investigation. By the end of the first episode he comes across an accusation that his son is the murderer.
Framed as a series of flashbacks to a turbulent year, the eight-part drama starts with Andrew appearing before a grand jury. Exactly what he’s accused of is unclear, but the pieces come together slowly. Andrew defended his son but Laurie began to doubt. Andrew began to wonder if a prone-to-violence gene skipped from his own father (a terrific turn from J.K. Simmons) to his son. The essential tension of the series is rooted in the unknowable Jacob. Andrew will staunchly defend his son to the end, even as evidence mounts against him.
There is nothing particularly original about the story. The key twist comes at the end and some viewers will be baffled. But Defending Jacob has merits. It’s unhurried to the point of being dourly focused, and it looks stunning. Adapted from the novel of the same name, the series is written by Mark Bomback (Outlaw King) and all episodes are directed by Morten Tyldum, who also created the unique, unsettling look of Starz’s great sci-fi spy drama, Counterpart. Here the palette is gorgeously slate-grey and subdued, drawing the viewer into literal and metaphorical shades of grey. If you want a subdued mystery-distraction, it’s here.
Also airing this weekend
Stronger Together/Tous Ensemble (Sunday, 6:30 p.m. on CBC, Global, CTV, plus 12 streaming platforms and 43 radio outlets) is the big benefit event. It’s mainly at-home music performances, with a long list of acts, including Céline Dion, Shania Twain, Alessia Cara, Michael Bublé, Bryan Adams, Jann Arden, Sarah McLachlan, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Barenaked Ladies, Arkells and Sofia Reyes. Then there are the celebs from various fields, including author Margaret Atwood, skater Tessa Virtue and TV stars Eric McCormack, Jason Priestley, Howie Mandel, Rick Mercer, Russell Peters and Will Arnett. It will be as super-Canadian as possible under the circumstances.
The Hottest August (Sunday, PBS 10 p.m. on Independent Lens) is an award-winning, acclaimed doc on climate change. It is not, emphatically not, the usual treatment of the subject. It approaches the topic sideways. In August of 2017, filmmaker Brett Story (an assistant professor of Image Arts at Ryerson University in Toronto) went around New York City, asking the innocuous question, “Do you have any worries about the future?” The answers she gets amount to a litany of worries and complaints but, mainly, a dodging of the issue of climate change. Yet while the weeks unfold, the area is having the hottest August on record. Story, perhaps better known outside Canada for her stylistically distinctive work, has been compared to Errol Morris, but that’s a tad unfair. She’s a true original and this film is formidably rich in texture. (Also note that After Life, Season 2, from Ricky Gervais, arrives on Netflix this weekend).
Finally, this column continues with a “stay-at-home-period daily-streaming pick.” Today’s pick is Pen15 (CBC Gem). An underappreciated gem, originally made for Hulu, this odd and sometimes incandescent comedy follows a pair of 13-year-old best friends starting middle school in the year 2000. Co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play adolescent versions of themselves. Every other youngster on the show is played by an actual teenager. This is not a gimmick. There is a dissonance, seeing them in the roles, but also a heartfelt lugubrious quality. Rarely has the maddening insecurities of being a teenager been so ably mocked but utterly understood with sympathy.
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