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'Presumed Innocent' review: Jake Gyllenhaal is the prime suspect in this tense, twisty thriller

A man in a courtroom is led by a police officer.

Courtroom thrillers about prosecutors landing in legal hot water are clearly a popular commodity over at Apple. One of the first big series to launch when the streaming platform did was Defending Jacob, the Chris Evans-fronted crime drama about an assistant DA's son being charged with murder.

That show proved popular with critics and audiences, so it's no big surprise that Apple is rolling out something similar in Presumed Innocent. It's a star-studded crime thriller about a top prosecutor who becomes the chief suspect in the killing of one of his colleagues.

This new mini-series is a fairly stock legal drama that's not necessarily all that new in terms of what it offers. It is, after all, based on Scott Turow's 1987 novel, which was turned into the 1990 Harrison Ford-fronted film — but the story itself feels contemporary, with its themes of sexual power dynamics and legal corruption. What it does, it does very well, with a fast-paced story, well-written script, and excellent performances across the board.

What's Presumed Innocent about?

Presumed Innocent follows top prosecutor Rusty Sabich (a perma-stressed Jake Gyllenhaal) as he investigates the murder of his colleague Carolyn (Renate Reinsve, The Worst Person in the World).

The problem? Rusty was having an affair with Carolyn before she died, and he's about as unreliable as a narrator can get. Soon, slimy rival prosecutors Nico (O-T Fagbenle) and Tommy (Peter Sarsgaard) are looking at him for the murder. Rusty's on a desperate quest to try and save his own life while struggling to keep his family together.

Not only is Rusty unreliable, he's also fairly unpleasant. Even calling him an anti-hero would be a massive stretch. He’s constantly lying to everyone around him while flying off the handle at anyone who gets in his way, long-suffering loved ones included. Gyllenhaal — who has made a career out of playing conflicted characters — relishes this role, leaning into Rusty's unpleasant mixture of explosive anger, bleary-eyed self-loathing, and ever-present stress while constantly keeping Presumed Innocent's key mystery front and centre: Is he out to prove his innocence, or is he simply trying to hide his guilt?

A family consisting of a man, woman, teenage boy and teenage girl sit together on a sofa in the semi-dark.
You've got to feel sorry for Rusty Sabich's family. Credit: Apple TV+

Presumed Innocent is TV at its highest quality.

Presumed Innocent is proof that a TV show is only as strong as the people that put it together. There really are no weak links here. The series is exec produced by J.J. Abrams and Gyllenhaal himself, among others. The showrunner is Big Little Lies creator David E. Kelley, who, alongside Miki Johnson (Ozark) and Sharr White (Palm Royale), delivers a hard-hitting and fast-paced script. (Kelley, who has a J.D. himself, made his name writing and producing TV legal dramas like LA Law and The Practice, so this is his wheelhouse.) Seasoned directors Greg Yaitanes (House of the Dragon) and Anne Sewitsky (Black Mirror) bottle the energy of the story and let the actors shine.

The acting is one of the show's greatest strengths. In addition to Gyllenhaal's strong performance, Sarsgaard is perfectly believable as his sleazy rival, and Bill Camp is brilliantly cast as his struggling friend and ally Raymond Horgan. Chase Infiniti and Kingston Rumi Southwick shine as his deeply conflicted children, alternating between wanting to protect their dad and struggling with the very real possibility that he actually did commit this heinous crime. Oscar nominee Ruth Negga (Good Grief, Passing) practically steals the show as Rusty's wife Barbara, who is doing her best to hold down the anger, fear, and hurt bubbling just below the surface. Barbara is a challenging character, but Negga knocks it out of the park with her performance.

Two lawyers are in a courtroom, one sat behind a table and the other standing in front of it.
Nico and Tommy have Rusty firmly in their crosshairs. Credit: Apple TV+

Are there any negatives?

Okay, yes: Presumed Innocent isn't exactly reinventing the wheel. The format is a formulaic one. All the expected twists and red herrings are there, as are the semi-believable case developments and courtroom drama. Coupled with this, there's the fact that a lot of the characters are pretty difficult to root for — or even like.

Does it matter though, at the end of the day? I would argue no. The formula is only a formula because it works; the central mystery hooks us in, and the twists keep us guessing. Presumed Innocent is undeniably compelling viewing.

How to watch: The first two episodes of Presumed Innocent premiere June 12 on Apple TV+. Episodes air weekly after that.


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