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Presumed Innocent Series Review: Throwback Thriller

A man and a woman look toward the camera, the former with a finger on his mouth, in the Apple TV+ series Presumed Innocent

The opening seven episodes of law thriller Presumed Innocent are riveting and loaded with the kind of adult themes missing in recent television dramas.

Directors: Anne Sewitsky & Greg Yaitanes
Genre: Crime, Thriller, Mystery
Number of episodes: 8
Global Release Date: June 12, 2024
Where to watch: Apple TV+

In 1987, Scott Turow’s novel, the legal thriller ‘Presumed Innocent’, was released to vast acclaim, spending 45 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It became a trail-blazing novel whose influence would be found throughout the genre, at one point inspiring Gillian Flynn to write ‘Gone Girl.’ Much like ‘Gone Girl’ was adapted into a David Fincher film in 2015, ‘Presumed Innocent’ was also adapted into a movie, back in 1990.

It then spawned a mini-series, and a pseudo-sequel film in 2011, but now the novel is being adapted once again for AppleTV+, and from JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot production company, who executive produced the show.

While the 1990 Presumed Innocent adaptation from Alan J. Pakula starred Harrison Ford (Star Wars), who could be described as the world’s biggest star at this point in his career, the Anne Sewitsky-directed TV show casts Jake Gyllenhaal (Zodiac), an actor who could also be described at being at the peak of his career. Both play the same character, Rusty Sabich, in their respective adaptations, with both taking considerably different approaches. Ford plays the more reserved, considerate character while Gyllenhaal, and this new adaptation as a whole, is considerably more coarse with its themes around the fallibility of love, the carnality of sex, and the moral repugnance of political gain.

Rusty Sabich (Gyllenhaal), a deputy prosecutor for the district attorney Raymond Horgan (Bill Camp, of Dark Waters), is a white collar family man, who plays catch with his kids. To outward appearances, he is happily married to wife Barbara (Ruth Negga, of Good Grief) and a good father to their children Kyle (Kingston Rumi Southwick) and Jaden (Chase Infiniti). But under the surface is something slightly more animalistic, a ferociousness that comes out under duress. Rusty, someone who is level headed and slick in court, begins to show these tendencies after being assigned to the rape and murder case of colleague Carolyn Polhemus (Renate Reinsve, of The Worst Person in the World), in which she is found hog-tied in her apartment.

This is in the same manner as how a criminal from a previous case she worked on had murdered, before threatening to do the same to her. However, Carolyn was not solely Rusty’s colleague but his affair, his obsession. The fact he had sex with Carolyn on the evening she was murdered, the text messages he bombarded her with and that his fingerprints are over every part of the crime scene not only places Rusty as a conflict of interest in the prosecution’s case but it’s not long before he becomes suspect number one. As Rusty’s tantrums throughout bleed into his spiralling mental decline so do the intrusive memories that bubble up around his relationship with Carolyn, while his decline is also being contributed to by opposing counsel’s refusal to look into the previous criminal.

A man with a white shirt is being taken to his seat by a police officer in a courtroom in the Apple TV+ series Presumed Innocent
Jake Gyllenhaal and Bill Camp in Presumed Innocent, premiering June 12, 2024 on Apple TV+. (Apple TV+)

District Attorney Horgan, who is played by Bill Camp with the utmost gravitas, is up for re-election. He is opposed by Nico Della Guardia (O-T Fagbenle), a politician noted for his nickname Delay Guardia for his tactics of stalling cases to win them. The murderer of Carolyn becomes political currency in their campaigns, and after Della Guardia takes over as District Attorney, he removes Rusty and Horgan from their positions of power. There’s no timidity in Presumed Innocent, a show that tackles sex with reverence and politics as its diametric opposite. It is equally enthused in removing autonomous power from the privileged Rusty, as it is the pseudo-politicians looking to stand over it as victors.

There are so many moving parts to Presumed Innocent that the story threatens to be bogged down in trying to place their relevance. But these parts – Kyle becoming laterally involved in the case, Carolyn’s estranged son Michael (Tate Birchmore) harassing Rusty, while opposing counsel Tommy Molto (Peter Sarsgaard, of Memory) slimily leers at pictures of Carolyn, tempting audiences with other possibilities for Carolyn’s demise – are all handled with dramatic tact. Not a single second of the first seven episodes of Presumed Innocent is spent without being utterly captivating or ever feeling unnecessary.

This is because the drama in Presumed Innocent is one that we rarely see in the current media climate. It holds nothing back from being candid about sex, with love and bureaucratic politics in the firing line. While films and TV within the Hollywood system are often sanitised and censored, Apple state their intent firmly in place with this riveting, shrewd show as a streaming service concerned with delivering adult entertainment, the kind that was commonplace on late night television and was once found in the multiplex prior to the boom of IP-centric product making. It is the kind of drama that should be inhaled, with the show’s maturity being what feels like that first gasp of air after drowning.

While the 1990 procedural was slightly misogynistic in its handling of Polhemus’ character (writers note: without having read Turow’s original novel, the 1990 film is our sole basis of comparison), scriptwriter David E. Kelley removes the slut shaming and adds much needed agency to the character, which works extremely well against the steely but iniquitous Rusty. Kelley’s script is fierce as he writes the characters as complicated, fully idealised people, while being laced with consistently delicious lines that the cast appear to relish reading.

It also makes plentiful other changes from the source material, usually for the better, while still capturing the old-school sensibility of legal dramas. The Pakula directed adaptation was apprehensive, with its heightened emotions being reserved for brief moments, while this version takes big emotional swings often. This is symptomatic of the story being made for television and over several episodes, rather than for a movie, but it means the momentum and tension around the outcome never lets up. The swings usually occur through Gyllenhaal’s excellent and gloriously unhinged performance, but both Skarsgaard and Camp get opportunities to chew at the screen.

What remains to be seen is how different the resolution to this adaptation will be in its (as yet unreleased to press) eighth and final episode. Creative liberties have already been taken from the novel and prior adaptation, but if this is to hold true to those sources, there is a bomb still to be dropped on the characters that is eagerly awaited. Regardless of if the series doesn’t quite stick the landing with the series finale, this is a show that scratched an itch one didn’t know needed scratched. Legal thrillers of this kind haven’t been made this absorbing in years.  

Watch on Apple TV

The first two episodes of Presumed Innocent will be available to stream on Apple TV+ on June 12, 2024, with further episodes released weekly and the finale airing on July 24.

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