Central Park probably isn’t the show you want to be central to your family.
He was just a kid.
Ben Rifkin was 14 years old when he was killed. He was handsome and popular and adored by his parents. And then, with the thrust of a knife to his chest, he was gone: a corpse lying in a park. No one even bothered to hide the body.
The little community of Newton, an affluent Boston suburb, reels from the murder. Who could’ve done this? The residents ask. What monster could’ve killed Ben? He was just a kid.
The horror only grows when Jacob Barber—son of Newton’s Assistant District Attorney Andy Barber and his wife, non-profit maven Laurie Barber—becomes the prime suspect.
Jacob’s not particularly handsome, not particularly popular. Shortly before Ben was murdered, he’d shown a new knife to some friends. Evidence begins to gather like storm clouds, growing thicker and thicker.
But Jacob insists he didn’t do it. And his parents believe him. They’ve watched their son learn and grow. Sure, he’s made some bad decisions, but what teen doesn’t? He’s no murderer. Of that, they’re sure.
After all, he’s just a kid.
Defending Jacob is based on a book written by William Landay, and Landay himself suggests that the story is as much a family drama as it is a crime novel.
That comes across in this Apple TV+ take on the book. Andy (played by Captain America’s Chris Evans) and Laurie (Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery) struggle to hold the family together. They love and defend their son through a nightmare few could conceive of. These loving parents would do anything for their little boy, as most parents would say they would do for theirs. But sometimes, that anything can look an awful lot like covering up evidence or twisting arms to try to help Jacob shake the charges against him. They want people to see what they, as parents, already know (or, at least, think they do): Their son is blameless.
We can’t weigh in on whether Jacob is innocent. But we know the show is not.
Oh, it’s not a bad show, aesthetically speaking: far from it. Each episode effectively sucks viewers into the story and offers plenty of twists and turns to keep ‘em guessing. You think through the clues even as you feel for the family.
But this TV-MA-rated program, while high on tension, is ankle-deep in blood, too. Ben’s not the only one who’ll violently bow out before the show runs its course. Flashbacks can be violent. And the language alone would be enough to earn Defending Jacob an R rating if it was a movie.
Defending Jacob suggests there are few limits when it comes to a parent’s love for his or her child. But when it comes to our own families watching, the show could’ve stood more limits of its own.
Fourteen-year-old Ben Rifkin is found dead in a park—clearly the victim of murder. Andy Barber, the local Assistant District Attorney, is in charge of the investigation. His son, Jacob, was also a classmate of Ben’s, so he and Laurie are naturally concerned with their own boy’s mental state. But when Andy sees some posts online—posts in which one of Jacob’s friends accuses the boy of murder—their concern takes a different turn.
We see Ben’s body in the leaves: His eyes are open, and a huge bloodstain covers his shirt. We hear about a potential suspect—a convicted child abuser who just moved into the area and who was convicted of groping a boy almost the same age as Ben. But Ben’s body showed no signs of sexual assault, we’re told.
Jacob tells his dad a joke predicated on a semen sample and masturbation. Andy and Laurie kiss in bed, then seem to be engaged in foreplay when the camera cuts away. Ben becomes the subject of a makeshift memorial, and friends and relatives gather for a Jewish Shiva. A song makes reference to the “season of the witch.” Characters use the f-word seven times (and Jacob uses the stand-in “friggin’”), the s-word three times, and “d–n,” “h—” and “d–k” are also used. God’s name is misused three times, and Jesus’ name is abused twice.
After discovering a knife in Jacob’s room, Andy throws it away with the trash. It’s just a way to get the thing out of the house (since Jacob wasn’t supposed to have it in the first place), not to cover up anything. “It’s not a crime to own a knife or to be a stupid teenager,” he tells wife Laurie. “Thank God. We’d have to lock up half of them.” But whispers are growing louder, and when police find Jacob’s fingerprint on the victim’s sweatshirt, they arrest him as a suspect.
Another knife is found in the park. Andy drives through town wildly and recklessly. Jacob admits that he found the body (describing the incident to police in some detail) but denies killing anybody. Another suspect, a convicted child molester, deletes photos of the victim (innocent-looking photos in and of themselves) from his phone. We see the guy stare at another young man. A song makes a reference to God.
Characters say the f-word three times and the s-word twice. We also hear “a–,” “h—“, “d–k” and “p-ss.” God’s name is misused five times, twice with the word “d—n.” Jesus’ name is abused twice.
Bail bond is set for Jacob, and he comes home. But things are far from normal. Laurie loses her job at the child-protection non-profit she helps manage (to avoid any “negative association,” she’s told) and her best friend. She learns that husband Andy’s own father was convicted of murder himself—and she worries that Jacob might be accused of having a “murder gene.” She also recalls how difficult and angry Jacob was as a child, and tiny doubts creep into her mind. Meanwhile, Andy continues to believe that a convicted child abuser is the real killer, and he convinces an old colleague to give him the abuser’s criminal file.
In flashback, Laurie remembers a birthday party at a bowling alley, where she prevented a much-younger Jacob from smashing someone over the head with a bowling ball. She tells a doctor that early on, Jacob would throw things at them, and at daycare he pushed a girl off some playground equipment. (The girl, we’re told, required stitches.) Andy chalks all this up to Jacob being a “normal boy with normal problems,” but he divulges his father’s violent past: His dad was thrown in prison for stabbing a woman at a community college, killing her. We learn that Jacob’s supposed murder victim bullied Jacob (along with other kids). Jacob plays a violent video game.
We learn that the victim (Ben) called Jacob a “f-ggot” on multiple occasions. While playing a videogame, Jacob uses the word “gay” derogatorily. We learn that Jacob’s new celebrity has earned him a few female admirers, including someone who’s created an online fan page for him.
The f-word is used once, the s-word five times and we also hear the word “d–k.” A crude word for testicles is also used. We see one or two texted acronyms that, if spelled out, would include a curse word or two. God’s and Jesus’ name are both misused three times each. Someone paints graffiti over Andy and Laurie’s garage door: “Murderer rot in hell,” it says.
As Jacob’s defense attorney, Joanna Klein, begins to prepare for the trial, Andy explores other possible suspects—including following convicted molester Leonard Patz and trying to talk to one of his accusers. Laurie, meanwhile, eats dinner at a diner and strikes up a much-needed conversation with a friendly woman. She’s horrified to learn that the woman is actually a reporter.
Andy visits a teen—who accused Leonard of groping him—in his mother’s home. The teen, who was in his room with his girlfriend doing, in the mother’s words, “God knows what,” won’t talk to Andy. Andy accuses the teen of lying about the accusations (which is why charges weren’t pressed). He suggests Leonard might’ve been the teen’s “lover” or “dealer.” (We hear some graphic discussion of the alleged misdeed, too.)
We learn more about Andy’s father, who’s still in prison for the rape and murder of a 19-year-old girl. Laurie secretly tries to find out more about “Bloody Billy Barber,” as the press called him at the time. In flashback, Andy remembers when he was 6 years old and visited his father in prison for the only time. The dad grabbed the boy by the wrist, and Andy remembers the dagger tattooed on his arm with the skull pommel.
In a therapist’s office, Jacob views pictures and clicks buttons designed to indicate whether he might have any violent tendencies. Many pictures are innocuous: pictures of puppies or a girl in a wheelchair. But some, in purposeful contrast, are horrific: a squirrel with its guts spilled; a man cradling a bad head injury; shrouded, stacked bodies. He plays a violent video game with a female school friend. (The girl may or may not have a crush on him, but one of Jacob’s old friends was “obsessed” over by her.)
The story that Jacob tells Joanna about the day he allegedly murdered a classmate is filled with holes. Andy drinks beer at dinner, while Laurie drinks wine. Characters say the f-word six times and the s-word four. We also hear “b–ch,” “h—” and “g-dd–n.”
Andy visits his father, who’s serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of a 19-year-old, in an effort to get a DNA sample from him. But it’s not his only outlet. He talks with a couple of Jacob’s friends, too, and he discovers new evidence—some of which might help clear Jacob, and some which might convict him.
When Andy’s told that Jacob frequented some “cutter porn” sites, he tries to minimize it at first. “All kids look at porn,” he says. But the sites that Jacob frequented were filled with sadistic imagery and, in the words of one of Jacob’s old friends, “people getting cut up and stuff.” We see some of those images, including a woman standing in a shower (from the knees down) in a puddle of blood. (Other images featuring injuries and perhaps even a corpse or two are briefly seen.)
A female friend of Jacob’s admits to sending a topless pic to Ben, the boy whom Jacob is accused of killing. (We see the eighth grader from behind, and from the shoulders up, as she takes the pic.) A fellow student steals Ben’s phone a couple of days before the murder to get rid of the pic. Andy and Laurie apparently have sex in their closet. We see them kiss passionately as they strip off their shirts, and Laurie unbuckles Andy’s pants.
Laurie relates a memory of watching Jacob, when he was 5 years old, picking up a bowling ball and seeming to prepare to slam it on another kid’s head. A woman spits in her face as she’s grocery shopping. Andy punctures a woman’s tire with a broken bottle. Jacob tells his dad that he wants to show a classmate the movie Borat—a really inappropriate choice for a 14-year-old. A teen uses a bong. Characters say the f-word 10 times and the s-word once. We also hear “a–,” “pr–k,” “p-ss” and “d–k.” God’s and Jesus’ name are both misused once.
As Jacob celebrates his 15th birthday and his trial edges closer, a new revelation switches the focus to another suspect. But Jacob’s counselor also reveals that the boy has some disturbing genetic patterns and “antisocial tendencies” that point to problems of his own.
The “new revelation” comes in the form of a teen who had earlier accused suspect Leonard Patz of groping him. Turns out, the teen’s relationship with Patz was more complicated: Patz would pay the teen to touch his privates on the outside of his clothes. It happened “six or seven” times, the teen says, but it stopped when Patz became enamored with a new kid—the eventual murder victim. That’s when the teen went to the police with his accusations. (He also tells police that Patz owned a knife that might’ve been the murder weapon.)
The teen says Patz tried to lure him to the older man’s apartment with the promise of beer. And we see Patz sleeping on the couch with empty beer bottles nearby. Andy and Laurie notice a strange car in their neighborhood—one in which the driver seems to just sit inside, smoking cigarettes. (The car slowly follows a terrified Laurie as she takes her morning run.) Andy gets a call from his father, a convicted killer, and essentially disowns him. Characters use the f-word about a dozen times. We also hear the s-word six times or so. Other profanities include “a–,” “d–n,” “h—,” five abuses of Jesus’ name and three misuses of God’s name (two of them with the word “d–n”).
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
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