Presumed Innocent Spins Riveting Mystery on Apple TV+


Based on Scott Turow’s 1987 legal thriller of the same name, “Presumed Innocent” stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Rusty Sabich, a renowned prosecutor and family man. He’s shown as a loving father and husband, spending a beautiful sunny day with his wife Barbara (Ruth Negga) and their children. There’s just one problem: Sabich is about to have an awful day. While enjoying time around the pool, he learns some horrific news – authorities have found the body of his colleague, Carolyn Polhemus (Renate Reinsve), fatally beaten, tied up, and subject to sexual violence. The district attorney assigns Sabich to the case, but Polhemus isn’t any old work colleague: Sabich had been having an affair with her for some time. Now, he’s the prime subject in her murder trial. 

This isn’t the first time “Presumed Innocent” has been adapted; Harrison Ford played Sabich in a filmed version in the 1990s. This new limited series is created and written by David E. Kelley. — the very same writer/creator of renowned legal dramas “LA Law”, “Ally McBeal”, “Boston Legal”, and “Big Little Lies” among others. Kelley has a long history of legal thrillers, and this story provides the perfect blend of mystery wrapped with legal intrigue that showcases his talents well.

What drives “Presumed Innocent” is Sabich’s intense desire to prove his innocence. When Roger Ebert wrote about the film, he said the core drama comes from “the fear of being found guilty of a crime one did not commit.” It isn’t immediately apparent how much trouble Sabich is in; Kelley’s script drips out incriminating details slowly. First, Polhemus is merely his colleague, then the news of the affair comes out, and so forth. Many of Sabich’s co-workers had no idea he was involved with Polhemus and began questioning his character. Even his long-time friend and boss, Raymond Horgan (Bill Camp), isn’t sure what to believe. 

The show constantly encourages you to question Sabich’s innocence throughout the series; he makes a lot of bone-headed decisions and snap judgments. He can be quick to violence, threatening coworkers or harassing civilians. This desperation leads him to reexamine crimes he and Polhemus solved some time ago because of vague similarities. Even his children believe he could have some dissociative reaction to this crime of passion. It only works because of Gyllenhaal’s intense, caterwauling performance — in one instance, he can be the smartest guy in the room, completely unhinged in the next. 

How sympathetic audiences will be to Sabich’s character will depend on their tolerance and reaction to infidelity. Even before the news of Polhemus’ death, Sabich’s marriage had already taken a massive blow, as Barbara had known about the affair for some time, and the two had been seeing a therapist to save their marriage. Barbara’s character is given a lot of agency in this adaptation, first in her relationship with her children and then as she explores a romance outside her marriage with an attractive bartender (Sarunas J. Jackson). While superficial to the overarching plot, this development works because of Negga’s innate talents.

With only seven of eight episodes provided to critics, it’s hard to say whether the whodunnit element of “Presumed Innocent” will match the intensity of contemporaries like “Twin Peaks” or “Mare of Easttown.” But Polhemus’ killer isn’t the most compelling element of the show, really; the true friction is in the professional rivalry between Sabich and deputy district attorney Tommy Molto (Peter Sarsgaard), who is assigned to the case by new DA Nico Della Guardia (O-T Fagbenle). Molto delights in using the case to deal more blows to his long-festering vendetta against the more successful Sabich, and their sparring matchups are the most thrilling aspect of the show. Given Gyllenhaal’s relationship with Sarsgaard (they are brothers-in-law in real life), maybe it’s unsurprising that they have such natural chemistry. 

Despite not always being a compelling mystery, “Presumed Innocent” makes up for it in spades with a fantastic ensemble and a captivating feud between two egotistical lawyers. This is David E. Kelley working in the register he excels at: a legal thriller with just enough interpersonal relationship drama and a touch of mystery. 

Seven episodes were screened for review. First two episodes of “Presumed Innocent” air on Apple TV+ on June 12th, followed by new episodes weekly. 

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