Jake Gyllenhaal Is ‘Presumed Innocent’ in David E. Kelley’s Gripping Legal Thriller 

Some prestigious law school out there is surely considering naming a building after David E. Kelley. Since the 1990s he has kept lawyers dangerous, sexy and heroic on television, rivaled only by “Law & Order.” He hasn’t lost the touch in Apple TV’s “Presumed Innocent,” a new adaptation of Scott Turow’s 1987 bestseller, first made into a 1990 movie starring Harrison Ford. It is a perfect story to revive with its breakneck tension. You don’t even have to know how all the legal jargon works. Jake Gyllenhaal is also a pristine leading man. He has the look of a movie star and the vulnerability of an entrapped character out of a Kafka nightmare. 

Kelley updates the story for the present while keeping the core plot. Successful Chicago prosecutor Rusty Sabich (Gyllenhaal) is living in privileged bliss with his wife, Barbara (Ruth Negga) and their adolescent kids. A phone call shatters the picture when he learns that colleague Carolyn Polhemus (Renate Reinsve) has been found murdered. It’s a vicious crime scene where Carolyn’s corpse is beaten, tied up and apparently sexually assaulted. Rusty starts to suspect there may be a link to a convict he and Carolyn put away. But the situation is quite complicated. Rusty and Carolyn had been having an affair and the autopsy shows she was pregnant. When his colleagues and boss, Raymond Horgan (Bill Camp), find out, Rusty becomes the prime suspect.

Kelley co-runs the show with director J.J. Abrams, another expert at fast-paced entertainment. The dialogue and pacing have the crackling signature from Kelley’s past hits like “Boston Legal” and “Big Little Lies.” Turow’s plot is one of those grabbing airtight inventions that borrow from the classic idea of an accused person who might be innocent. Paranoia and tension build through the kinetic writing and editing of events. While following Rusty trying to clear his name, we get glimpses of his relationship with Carolyn and moments he keeps to himself. Once your dirty laundry is exposed, all relations can be shaken. At work Rusty’s rival Tommy Molto (Peter Sarsgaard) heads the investigation into the murder, using the opportunity to scrutinize everything about Rusty’s life. Raymond cares for Rusty but doesn’t know what to believe. At home, one of the best moments finds Barbara forcing Rusty to tell their children about his affair, before they hear it at school or on the news.

Such moments give the suspense a strong personal dimension. These characters may be familiar archetypes from movies and novels from authors like John Grisham, but that doesn’t mean they need to be cardboard. Barbara is written as more than just another thriller wife. She gets enough of her own space within the story, eventually getting involved with a bartender (Sarunas J. Jackson) instead of being the raging wife or dutiful cliché. There’s a great moment where Rusty listens in on Barbara consoling their kids and the dialogue has a unique maturity. It sounds like an actual grown up having to explain or discuss something very painful. A fresh District Attorney, Nico Della Guardia (O-T Fagbenle), is more of a classic thriller adversary. He’s the vain politician desperate to look good and could care less what happens to Rusty, as long as the case gets quickly cleaned up.

Apple TV tends to be a streamer known for its dreary content. Most of its shows are gloomy reflections on the human condition. “Presumed Innocent” is dark but never slow. It delivers strong cliffhangers, never resorting to cheap violence when it feels it needs to keep our attention awake. The cast all has great chemistry, not least Gyllenhaal and Sarsgaard, who are brothers-in-law in real life. Gyllenhaal evokes some of the same tension from his memorable performance in Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy.” Kelley keeps us on our toes by not always doing the obvious with these actors. When Rusty gets one of those menacing, potentially incriminating texts from a mysterious sender, he actually shows it to Barbara. On a deeper level, this is a good show about what happens when someone is accused of something shocking. How do we process or confront the possibility someone we thought we knew did a heinous act? Such deeper themes making the show even more rewarding, even as the inevitable courtroom standoffs are pulse-pounding.

Presumed Innocent” begins streaming June 12 with new episodes premiering Wednesdays on Apple TV+.