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Column | The problem with David E. Kelley’s latest TV show Presumed Innocent

A still from David E. Kelley’s new legal drama Presumed Innocent.
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Watching Presumed Innocent, David E. Kelley’s new legal drama for Apple TV+, has brought up complicated feelings. The show stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Rusty Sabich, a prosecutor accused of murdering a younger colleague, Carolyn Polhemus (Renate Reinsve), with whom he was having an extramarital relationship with.

It is based on Scott Turow’s bestselling 1987 novel, the source for an earlier big-screen adaptation in 1990, starring Harrison Ford. Presumed Innocent is full of the familiar Kelley hallmarks: lurid, sensationalist subject matter, an emphasis on psychology over materialist concerns, and rapid-fire, emotionally-charged dialogues spouted by unerringly self-righteous characters.

When he’s operating at peak potential, a Kelley show makes agreeable genre fare out of these ingredients. When he’s not, though, a lot of Kelley protagonists begin to sound like each other: over-confident motormouths with a streak of moral obstinacy and, of course, American exceptionalism. So when Presumed Innocent is functioning as a strict whodunnit or a police/court procedural, it does really well. Turow has been credited as an executive producer on the show and both Kelley and he were practising lawyers before entering showbiz. No surprises, then, that they are good writers of legal procedurals.

Producer David E. Kelley

Producer David E. Kelley
| Photo Credit:
Getty Images

Old, sexist tropes

However, the show falters by giving way too much screen time to the pedestrian family drama surrounding Sabich, not to mention his own crippling guilt over cheating on his wife. Ruth Negga does an excellent job as Sabich’s long-suffering wife, Barbara. Her performance in the Rebecca Hall-directed Passing a couple of years ago was monumental. She does a competent job with a poorly written character in Presumed Innocent. Both the women in Sabich’s life, his wife Barbara and his late colleague/ex-girlfriend Carolyn, have been written stereotypically.

Carolyn’s only narrative function seems to be hackneyed sex scenes with Sabich in flashback sequences, and reminding him that he’s unambitious. Conversely, Barbara only seems to exist to remind Sabich every now and then that he’s not the ‘family man’ she thought he’d be. We are told that Carolyn only initiated the affair with Sabich because she thought he was a rising star in the DA’s office. This ‘gold digger’ narrative of a career woman leading the morally-upright protagonist astray — it just has to die. The trope is not even executed that well in Presumed Innocent.

Kelley started off as head writer for L.A. Law before creating landmark shows through the 90s and 2000s, including The PracticeBoston Legal and Ally McBeal. More recently, he has enjoyed a triumphant return to mainstream TV with The Lincoln LawyerBig Little Lies and The Undoing, the last two of which star Nicole Kidman. However, many of his biggest successes, including Boston Legal and The Practice, have not necessarily aged all that well. Kelley essentially has the same problem as another star showrunner from the 90s and 2000s: Aaron Sorkin.

Relying on politicking

Kelley and Sorkin are basically Clinton liberals who cut their teeth on a brand of progressivism that depended heavily on political theatre and placing token black and brown spokespeople in charge of status-quoist government agencies.

As a result, a lot of their best works have aged terribly. Sorkin’s The Newsroom, with its open contempt for young people (especially young Democrats), comes across as unbearably smug today, as do several episodes of The West Wing. Kelley’s Boston Legal, in seasons three and four, made no secret of its preference for Hillary Clinton, even going as far as to create a caricature of Barack Obama supporters.

Clinton, of course, went on to lose the easiest election in American history and has since spent the last five to six years grumbling about young men preferring Bernie Sanders over her. Joe Biden seems to have embarked on a similar trajectory, his approval rating plummeting every week. After his disastrous performance in CNN’s presidential debate last week, the Biden campaign sent out a panicky email to Democratic voters, insisting that Biden would still win. “This is not an Aaron Sorkin fever dream,” the email said, underlining how closely Sorkin’s politics tallies with that of Biden’s in particular and Boomer liberals in general.

The likes of Kelley and Sorkin must either reinvent themselves wholesale, or accept the reality of their ongoing obsolescence. On the evidence of Presumed Innocence, though, that day remains out of sight.

The writer and journalist is working on his first book of non-fiction.

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