3.5 out of 5 stars

For his first lead role in a television drama, Jake Gyllenhaal (Road House) delivers a haunted performance as a high-flying criminal prosecutor on trial, accused of murdering his lover. Gyllenhaal plays Rusty Sabich, whose sanctimonious ego is crushed when his colleague Carolyn Polhemus (The Worst Person in the World’s Renate Reinsve) is found dead. He confidently takes on the case until details of his connections to Carolyn reveal themselves and, suddenly, Rusty becomes the main suspect in a brutal murder case.

Presumed Innocent is also concerned with the tension between the state department and the prosecutors. Bill Camp (The Queen’s Gambit) plays the world-weary older lawyer defending Rusty, and Peter Sarsgaard (Dopesick) and O-T Fagbenle (The Handmaid’s Tale) form the cocky team in the District Attorney’s office. The professional bad blood between the two departments spills over unprofessionally into the case of a dead woman. The moral ambiguity of these legal teams showcases how desensitising working for so long in the industry can be. These people can detach themselves so easily from the case at hand, using the death of a colleague to score points.

Adapted by David E. Kelley (Boston Legal) from the 1987 novel by Scott Turow, the eight episodes are less interested in who killed Carolyn and more about the interpersonal life of these two lawyers. Previously adapted into a 1990 Harrison Ford movie, Presumed Innocent is a devastating portrait of crumbling marriages and a corrupt legal system.

Crime fans may find themselves disappointed in the soapier aspects of the story. While the court case is the focal point of the drama, a significant amount of time is spent rummaging into Rusty’s private life. Despite the steamy flashbacks and chemistry between Reinsve and Gyllenhaal, there is something oddly distant about the portrayal of their affair.

Their relationship is entirely told through quick glimpses, often coming to Rusty in his dreams (or nightmares). It’s hard to grasp how much she meant to Rusty as he thinks back on their time together in vague and sometimes surrealist vignettes.

Carolyn only exists in the memories of men, who see her as either a nurturing picture of beauty or a sex kitten to be lusted after. It’s difficult to feel an emotional connection to a woman who merely exists as a fantasy for her colleagues. She doesn’t appear to have any personality or traits beyond the absent mother, passionate lover, and good lawyer.

Ruth Negga (Preacher) steals the show in the limited screen time she has as Barbara, Rusty’s sidelined wife. The middle episodes explore Barbara’s role in the highly publicised trial and how her husband’s extramarital activities affect her life. Negga is excellent as a wife caught between being a scorned woman wanting to break free and keeping her family together for the sake of their two teenage children. Amongst all the legal jargon and sparring between district attorneys, the most captivating part of Presumed Innocent is the portrayal of Rusty and Barbara’s breakdown.

The casting of Negga and Fagbenle allows Presumed Innocent to touch upon racial equality in America. Unfortunately, it only ever goes surface-deep and fails to truly explore how a mixed-race woman would feel as the wife of a white lawyer on trial for murdering his white lover.

The show occasionally dips into the surreal, a hallmark of Kelley’s work. The legal team’s dreams of exploding heads and brutal murder scenes feel out of place. Confusing the audience isn’t a welcome addition, especially when that time could be used to develop characters and expand upon details of the criminal case.

Fans of the book will be surprised by this adaptation. This new mini-series makes significant changes from the source novel, as many of the twists in the book wouldn’t work in the 21st-century due to advancements in DNA testing and forensics. The Apple TV+ show cleverly reimagines the case to incorporate digital footprints, doorbell cameras, and the evolving US judicial landscape.

The episodes are fast-paced, delivering plenty of twists and turns, but the beats often feel one-note. Despite the talented cast of character actors, including the ever-reliable Sarsgaard and Camp, many of the supporting characters lack depth. Various lawyers and forensic team members come and go without being fully fleshed out. Lily Rabe (American Horror Story) is also underused as the family therapist who becomes overwhelmed when their marital issues turn deadly. There are too many fantastic character actors and subplots for them all to receive the attention they deserve.

The heart of the series lies in the final three episodes, which focus on the actual case. The courtroom scenes are thrilling, showcasing Kelley’s strength as a writer. There’s genuine jeopardy surrounding the trial’s outcome. Both sides present compelling evidence, and Gyllenhaal portrays Rusty as equally believable as a volatile lover and a flawed family man.

David E. Kelley, a former lawyer himself, delivers a tightly scripted eight-part series. Gyllenhaal and Negga are perfectly suited to his sharp, fast-paced dialogue. His reflections on love and relationships are sometimes more insightful than the procedural elements of the plot, which is surprising considering Kelley’s track record with shows like The Practice (1997-2004), Ally McBeal (1997-2002), and Goliath (2016-2021). Kelley cleverly sets out all the pieces on the board, revealing the characters’ morals (or lack thereof) before bringing them together for a dynamic finale.

Presumed Innocent is a thrilling, twisty tale of government corruption, love affairs, and marital breakdown. Despite the enticing themes and stellar cast, the show ultimately fails to deliver on its promise of greatness. One-dimensional characters, poorly written victims, and twists more suited to a soap opera hold the show back. Presumed Innocent would have been stronger with a greater focus on the trial and evidence, and less emphasis on the characters’ inner turmoil.

USA | 2024 | 8 EPISODES | 16:9 HD | COLOUR | ENGLISH

Cast & Crew

writers: David E. Kelley, Miki Johnson, Sharr White (based on the novel by Scott Turow).
directors: Greg Yaitanes & Anne Sewitsky.
starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Ruth Negga, Bill Camp, Elizabeth Marvel, Renate Reinsve, Peter Sarsgaard, O-T Fagbenle, Chase Infiniti, Lily Rabe, Nana Mensah, Matthew Alan & Kingston Rumi Southwick.