David E. Kelley’s “Presumed Innocent” Series Is a Disappointment

A female prosecutor is murdered. The DA assigns his deputy, a respected family man, to the case. The attorney had an affair with the deceased, and when it’s revealed, he’s put on trial for her murder. Did he do it? We’ll have to wait to find out.

This is the familiar plot of Presumed Innocent, the 1987 debut novel by , who went on to become a big name in legal thrillers. An followed in 1990, directed by All the President’s Men and auteur Alan J. Pakula and starring as the defendant, Rusty Sabich. The movie was a hit with critics and audiences. While its gender politics are dated, it’s still a well-made courtroom drama with elements of an erotic thriller.

The emergence of a new eight-episode Presumed Innocent series is baffling given Hollywood’s obsession with adaptations and remakes. Especially considering it’s helmed by David E. Kelley, a prolific—and increasingly mediocre—TV creator. After capturing the late-’90s zeitgeist with , making his mark with prestige TV with , and unveiling a disastrous recently, it’s clear he’s lost his maverick reputation. While a new Kelley show used to be anticipated, in 2024, it’s met with dread.

Kelley has a formula these days, and Presumed Innocent, premiering June 12 on Apple TV+, adheres to it. Like most of his projects, from his early work on L.A. Law to Boston Legal and his recent adaptation of The Lincoln Lawyer, it takes place mostly in a courtroom. Like Lies, A Man, , , and , it was adapted from a novel and features an A-list cast. gives a flat performance as Rusty; makes the most of her underwritten role as his wife, Barbara; and Peter Sarsgaard enjoys playing Rusty’s nemesis, Tommy Molto. (Bill Camp, as the DA, is the standout.) As in Kelley’s subgenre of (see, especially: The Undoing, Anatomy) the main male character is a charming enigma to everyone, including his spouse and the viewer.

These habits wouldn’t be so frustrating if the execution of the typical post-Lies Kelley show didn’t feel so indifferent. Pacing is a constant problem. While A Man compressed a 742-page novel into six episodes, Presumed Innocent stretches a two-hour movie to eight, making it dull. Beyond some shaky camera work and a dull color scheme, the series lacks visual style. When not riddled with clichés (“She woke something up inside of me. Something I thought was dead”), the dialogue sounds robotic, like Kelley (who wrote or co-wrote nearly every episode) never polished it. Barbara is incredulous when a girlfriend encourages her to have an affair: “Are you seriously suggesting I engage in a little extramarital revenge sex with a bartender I just met?”

The project might not be entirely cynical from Kelley and his collaborator on Presumed Innocent, mega-producer . If there’s one reason to remake this story, it’s to address the misogyny in the book and film, which, like many erotic thrillers of the 1980s and ’90s, portray women as unhinged and willing to do anything for love or ambition. But this version features women in crucial roles behind the scenes; among its executive producers are writer Miki Johnson and director Anne Sewitsky. Both Barbara and the murder victim, Carolyn ( breakout Renate Reinsve), are more sympathetic but also a bit boring. Kelley has added roles for women outside the love triangle. And although I haven’t seen the finale, it seems likely the series is headed to a different destination than its predecessors.

Unfortunately, as the second season of Lies, The Undoing, Anatomy, and the decline of Kelley’s ABC crime drama have shown, it takes more than feminist intentions to make a great show. Big stars, best-selling source material, and courtroom intrigue aren’t enough to overcome bad writing. Good TV needs purpose, style, and attention to detail—all things that David E. Kelley now seems unable to offer.