Presumed Innocent Series Premiere Review: Meet Rusty Sabich (Again)

Spoilers

Presumed Innocent, a novel published in 1987 by lawyer-turned-author Scott Turow, came from a specific era of popular fiction about the law, which prefigured John Grisham’s massive run not long after.

Grisham’s novels featured heroic lawyers against mobsters, Klansmen, and other bad guys.

Turow’s most popular novel, on the other hand, was the much less heroic story of a prosecuting attorney accused of murdering a fellow lawyer, a woman with whom he had an extramarital affair.

Just as Grisham’s novels The Firm, A Time to Kill, and The Pelican Brief drew considerable interest from Hollywood, Turow’s novel Presumed Innocent was made into a movie in 1990, directed by Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men).

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The movie closely followed the template of Michael Douglas’ movies from that era (most notably Fatal Attraction), about a man having an affair and suffering major consequences, so it’s a surprise that Douglas didn’t play the lead part.

Instead, Harrison Ford played the protagonist, Rusty Sabich, with Bonnie Bedelia (from Die Hard) playing his wife, Raul Julia as his attorney, and Greta Scacchi as that doomed mistress.

Packed with tension over whether Rusty is guilty of the crime, the movie and novel are strongly remembered for the shocking plot twist at the end.

Kelley’s many looks at the law

Now, we have a limited-series update of Turow’s novel, and its pedigree is strong.

It was created by David E. Kelley, the TV veteran who has recently shepherded popular literary adaptations like Big Little Lies and The Lincoln Lawyer.

Kelley was a lawyer before he went into TV, and as a young writer, he ran L.A. Law for a time.

Like Presumed Innocent, Kelley’s The Lincoln Lawyer was a series adaptation of a popular legal novel that had already been made into a movie.

However, The Lincoln Lawyer ran for multiple seasons, while Presumed Innocent’s story is fairly self-contained.

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Jake Gyllenhaal, a big movie star, has stepped into the leading role.

Oscar-nominated actress Ruth Negga plays his wife Barbara, and Renate Reinsve, the Norwegian actress from the outstanding film The Worst Person in the World, plays mistress Carolyn Polhemus.

Meanwhile, the cast is rounded out with talented character actors like Bill Camp, Elizabeth Marvel, Peter Sarsgaard, and Lily Rabe.

Through two episodes, the hype of Presumed Innocent is very much warranted.

Through the first two episodes, it is a suspenseful and well-acted show that never seems to be stretching to fill an eight-episode running time. 

Prelude to a murder

Presumed Innocent Season 1 Episode 1, “Bases Loaded,” quickly establishes the premise. Rusty gets the call that Carolyn has been found murdered.

He and his colleagues argue about which prosecutor will be assigned to the case of her murder.

But this is complicated by a couple of factors: The district attorney (Bill Camp) is facing a tough re-election fight against another of the prosecutors (O-T Fagbenle, from The Handmaid’s Tale.)

Also, Rusty and Carolyn had had an affair, albeit one that appeared to end months before her murder.

This not only gives him a clear conflict of interest but also indicates that Rusty could be suspected of the crime.

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After the funeral, the episode continues according to the standard of Law and Order and other procedural formulas. Red herrings are followed, and other suspects are interviewed and ruled out.

It’s also clear that the prosecutor’s office is under political pressure to solve the case, although it’s unknown why public pressure is on them rather than the police.

The best of the show

The revelation about the affair comes about halfway through the first episode, and one of the things the show does best is depicting the affair and its effect on Rusty and his marriage to Barbara.

In both the first and second episodes, Negga, in particular, steals the show in quiet moments of confession about her hurt.

Another highlight is O-T Fagbenle, as the rival prosecutor and a particularly smug adversary of Rusty’s.

On Presumed Innocent Season 1 Episode 2, “The People vs. Rozat Sabich,” the case against Rusty gets underway in earnest, and the show begins to resemble more of a traditional legal procedural.

Is Rusty an innocent man, wrongfully accused? Or did he carry out this terrible murder?

The success of any version of this story hinges on whether the tension of that question can be maintained, and in this version, it certainly is.

It is unclear whether the show will follow the book and movie’s ending, although, for those familiar, that question will supply its own form of tension.

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The key differences

Aside from the length, there are a few differences between the book and the previous movie.

The new Presumed Innocent is set in the present day, judging by modern electronics and investigative methods rather than when the book or film was written.

For example, a surprise text message in one scene would not have been possible in the 1990 movie.

The original was set in a geographically undetermined Midwestern city, although the new show makes it clear it’s Chicago.

Still, it was filmed in California. In the original, Rusty and Barbara had only one son; now they have a son and a daughter.

Also, the character of Sandy Stern, a lawyer who represented Rusty in the novel and is a perennial throughout Turow’s other books, is absent from the new version.

Instead, Bill Camp’s Raymond Horgan, previously Rusty’s boss, acts as his defense attorney.

In addition, the present-day setting gives certain things a different context, most notably that two colleagues having an affair with one another plays a bit differently, post-#MeToo.

How it will be go

Presumed Innocent is an eight-episode limited series.

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We’ll keep bringing you reviews weekly, so be sure to return to TV Fanatic for our thoughts and to get the conversation started!

Once again, judging by the first two episodes, it’s another triumph for David E. Kelley.

Stephen Silver is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. You can follow more of his work on his Substack The SS Ben Hecht, by Stephen Silver.You can follow him on X.

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