Apple TV+’s Presumed Innocent Is a Riveting Reimagining of a Classic Legal Thriller

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Apple TV+’s Presumed Innocent Is a Riveting Reimagining of a Classic Legal Thriller

Watching Apple TV+’s newest dramatic series, Presumed Innocent, will make you feel just like its lead character. At first, what you’re viewing makes sense and seems simple enough. Prosecutor Rusty Sabich (Jake Gyllenhaal) is investigating the murder of someone he’s intimately familiar with. Then, slowly, much like Rusty, after each episode your obsession will become more and more obvious. 

Based on the 1987 best-selling novel of the same name by Scott Turow, Presumed Innocent tells the story of Chicago’s chief deputy prosecutor who’s accused of murder. If the title sounds familiar, the book was turned into a 1990 film starring Harrison Ford. 

When I started watching screeners for the eight-episode series, I was a bit apprehensive. I’m a fan of the film which mostly stays loyal to the novel. How could the story possibly be improved? The answer is showrunner David E. Kelly (Big Little Lies, The Practice, and countless other hit shows), who has his fingerprints all over the limited series, turning it into a brilliant reimagining of an American classic. And it all starts with a murder. 

Presumed Innocent wastes no time. Within the first five minutes of the pilot, viewers learn of the murder of Carolyn Polhmeus (Renate Reinsve), an attorney in the prosecutor’s office. Rusty is assigned to the case because he’s the right-hand man of District Attorney Raymond Horgan (Bill Camp). The murder rocks the DA’s office, pitting Rusty and Horgan against Tommy Molto (Peter Sarsgaard) and Nico Della Guardia (O-T Fagbenle), two attorneys who wanted to be assigned to the high profile case to boost their careers.  

The series begins as a typical murder mystery, but viewers quickly learn that Rusty should have recused himself. He not only had an affair with Carolyn, but fell in love with her. Things get worse when Tommy, who has a contentious relationship with everyone in the office except for Nico, learns of the affair and makes Rusty the prime murder suspect. The intensity gradually ramps up from there.

Each episode of Presumed Innocent acts as an individual tug on the noose of suspicion around Rusty’s neck. Increasingly desperate, we see him make one misguided mistake after another. Rusty downplays his relationship with Carolyn to his wife and Raymond, now his defense attorney, and every time he makes a bad decision, it comes back to haunt him. Rusty has trouble controlling his temper, grabbing one man by the collar and beating up another. He frequently lets Tommy, his long standing rival, out maneuver him despite being the superior lawyer. This is a man under so much pressure he’s become a walking contradiction. 

Rusty is a devoted family man, but commits the ultimate betrayal. He’s a smart lawyer, but makes errors that benefit the prosecution. Played brilliantly and believably by Gyllenhaal, he maintains his innocence but commits boneheaded mistakes that make him look terrible. (My review notes are filled with “He looks guilty” and “Rusty’s losing it.”) This is one of many ways the limited series diverges from the source material. 

In the film and the novel, Rusty is more stoic, and his affair with Carolyn is never proven by the prosecution. Horgan works against Rusty, not with him. Tommy and Nico are mostly inept, losing a key piece of evidence. And Rusty’s defense attorney Sandy Stern, played by Raul Julia in the film, is an important player; Sandy’s only mentioned in passing in the series. 

All of these changes are substantial differences, but they allow David E. Kelly to give every role more depth, ultimately acting as tools to aid in ramping up the intensity surrounding Rusty. This is exemplified by two characters on opposite ends of Rusty’s relationship spectrum: his wife and the man prosecuting him. 

Barbara, played by the incomparable Ruth Negga, is Rusty’s tortured wife. She loves her husband and their kids and wants to stay together for her family but struggles to get over her heartbreak and anger. Barbara also has her own contradictions, feeling some responsibility for the troubles in her marriage and understanding that she’s partially to blame for letting the two drift apart. She also believes in his innocence. It’s a nuanced role that Negga excels in. 

Peter Sarsgaard is mesmerizing as Tommy, a character who grows in importance over the course of the season. Initially, he’s the office doormat with his poor social skills and penchant for sucking up to his superiors, frequently making him the butt of jokes. But with his new role as chief deputy prosecutor, his rival’s old job, he looks to extract some payback on those who ridiculed him, Rusty in particular. Always great in villainous roles, Sarsgaard plays Tommy with relish. 

Rich characters aren’t hard to find in this series. Elizabeth Marvel is great as Raymond’s opinionated wife, Lorraine. Noma Dumezweni is excellent as Judge Lyttle, who’s presiding over the case. And Bill Camp is a frequent scene stealer as Raymond Horgan; I’d watch a spinoff with just his character. Strong performances and a compelling plot makes Presumed Innocent addictive television. 

As I often do with shows I review, I started watching this series with my wife as I like to get a non-critic’s perspective. Usually, she’ll watch one or two episodes of a series then bounce, but not this time. We were both enthralled. Much like Rusty obsessing over Carolyn, we became obsessed with what we were watching. Each of the first seven episodes I had access to, which all end on cliffhangers, had us ready for more. 

David E. Kelly has tweaked the formula for Presumed Innocent so much that neither me or my wife know what will happen in the finale, despite watching the film right before we started the series. The veteran showrunner has both of us at the edge of our seats, which is an exciting place to be. 

Presumed Innocent premieres Wednesday, June 12th on Apple TV+. 

Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot, and aspiring hand model. When he’s not amazed at how prolific David E. Kelly is, you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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