'Presumed Innocent' Review: David E. Kelley Must Be Stopped

An attractive female prosecutor is murdered in lurid fashion. The DA assigns his trusted deputy, a charismatic and respected family man, to the case. What he doesn’t know is that said attorney had been carrying on an affair with the deceased. Then the dalliance comes to light and the golden boy finds himself on trial for the homicide. Did he do it? We won’t know until the end.

This is the now-familiar plot of Presumed Innocent, the best-selling 1987 debut novel by Scott Turow, who would go on to become one of the biggest names in the legal thriller genre. An all-star film adaptation followed in 1990, directed by All the President’s Men and The Parallax View auteur Alan J. Pakula and starring Harrison Ford as the defendant, Rusty Sabich. The movie was a hit with critics and audiences alike. While its gender politics have aged poorly, it remains a wonderfully twisty, sharply made courtroom drama, with hints of erotic thriller pathos.

Ruth Negga and Jake Gyllenhaal in <i> Presumed Innocent</i><span class="copyright">Apple TV+</span>
Ruth Negga and Jake Gyllenhaal in Presumed InnocentApple TV+

The emergence, decades later, of a sluggish, eight-episode Presumed Innocent series would be baffling if Hollywood weren’t so thirsty for adaptations and remakes, and particularly if the show weren’t helmed by David E. Kelley, television’s increasingly prolific—and increasingly mediocre—go-to creator for such projects. Twenty-seven years after he captured the late-’90s zeitgeist with Ally McBeal, seven years after he made his prestige TV bones with Big Little Lies, and about six weeks after he unveiled a disastrous Netflix adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, it’s clear he no longer deserves his maverick reputation. Whereas a new Kelley show would once have been a cause for anticipation, in 2024, the more appropriate response is dread.

Kelley has a formula these days, and Presumed Innocent, premiering June 12 on Apple TV+, adheres closely to it. Like the majority of Kelley’s projects, from his early career as a writer for L.A. Law through Boston Legal in the aughts and his recent adaptation of book turned movie The Lincoln Lawyer, it takes place largely in a courtroom. Like Lies, A Man, Nine Perfect Strangers, The Undoing, and Anatomy of a Scandal, it was adapted from a novel and features an A-list cast. Jake Gyllenhaal dishonors Ford with a perplexingly flat performance as Rusty; Ruth Negga makes the best of the underwritten role of his mysteriously loyal wife, Barbara; and Peter Sarsgaard has fun playing Rusty’s scheming nemesis, Tommy Molto. (Stalwart character actor Bill Camp, as the embattled DA, is the highlight of the cast.) As in Kelley’s favorite subgenre, the rich-oblivious-wife show (see, especially: The Undoing, Anatomy) the main male character is a charming enigma to everyone, including not just his spouse, but also the viewer.

Peter Sarsgaard in <i>Presumed Innocent</i><span class="copyright">Apple TV+</span>
Peter Sarsgaard in Presumed InnocentApple TV+

These habits wouldn’t be quite so frustrating if the execution of the typical post-Lies Kelley show didn’t feel so indifferent. Pacing is a perennial problem. While A Man squished a 742-page novel into six glib episodes, Presumed Innocent stretches a story that worked perfectly as two-hour movie to three times that length, rendering it all but inert. Apart from some shaky handheld camera work and a dull, blue-and-beige palette, the series has no real visual style. When it’s not riddled with clichés (“She woke something up inside of me. Something I thought was dead”), the dialogue can sound comically robotic, like preliminary notes Kelley (who wrote or co-wrote nearly every episode) never bothered to refine into a script. Confessing a flirtation to a girlfriend, Barbara is incredulous to hear the woman encourage her to have an affair: “Are you seriously suggesting I engage in a little extramarital revenge sex with a bartender I just met?”

The project might not be entirely cynical on the part of Kelley and his chief collaborator on Presumed Innocent, mega-producer J.J. Abrams. If there’s one good reason to reimagine this story, it’s to address the misogyny implicit in the book and film, which, like so many erotic thrillers of the 1980s and ’90s, portray female characters as unhinged leeches, willing to do anything in the name of love or ambition. But this version features women in crucial roles behind the scenes; among its executive producers are writer Miki Johnson and director Anne Sewitsky. Both Barbara and the murder victim, Carolyn (The Worst Person in the World breakout Renate Reinsve), come off as more sympathetic but also a smidge boring. Kelley has added roles for women outside the love triangle as well. And although I wasn’t able to screen the finale, it seems likely that the series is headed to a somewhat different destination than its predecessors.

Renate Reinsve in <i>Presumed Innocent</i><span class="copyright">Apple TV+</span>
Renate Reinsve in Presumed InnocentApple TV+

Unfortunately, as the second season of Lies, The Undoing, Anatomy, and the rapid deterioration Kelley’s initially promising ABC crime drama Big Sky have proven, it takes more than vague feminist intentions to make a great show. Nor are big stars or best-selling source material or courtroom intrigue sufficient to overcome hacky writing. Good TV requires purpose, style, attention to detail—all things that David E. Kelley now seems too thinly spread to offer.

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