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Recommended: Black Bird on Apple TV+

Real-life inspiration and light tweaks to the serial killer template sustain a solid miniseries.
  • Paul Walter Hauser and Taron Egerton in Black Bird (Photo: Apple TV+)
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    Black Bird | Apple TV+
    Six-Episode Limited Series (Crime Drama) | TV-MA

    What's Black Bird About?

    Jimmy Keene is facing 10 years in jail for selling drugs, but the FBI says they'll commute his sentence if he goes undercover in a maximum security prison to befriend Larry Hall, a serial killer who might get off on a technicality. Jimmy will be free if he can just get Larry to reveal where he buried several bodies.

    Who's involved?

    • Taron Egerton is Jimmy. Charming and confident, he wouldn't normally let himself be a pawn for the government, but his dad just suffered a stroke, and if he doesn't get out of prison, he may never see his old man again.
    • Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell) is in classic serial killer mode as Larry. He blinks a lot, stares off into space, and speaks with a high voice and strange cadence.
    • Greg Kinnear abandons his usual rakish charisma to play Brian Miller, the brusque, rumpled detective who helped bring Larry down. He's haunted to know that Larry might go free, so he's working the case all over again.
    • In one of his last roles, the late Ray Liotta plays Jimmy's father. He's a former cop, and he feels responsible for letting his son wind up a criminal.
    • Sepideh Moafi (The L Word: Generation Q) is Lauren McCauley, the FBI agent who's running the operation that sends Jimmy undercover.
    • Jake McLaughlin (Quantico) is Larry's brother Gary, who feels an overwhelming duty to protect his younger sibling.
    • The series was created and largely written by Dennis Lehane, who wrote the novels that became Mystic River, Shutter Island, and Gone Baby Gone.

    Why (and to whom) do we recommend it?

    Although it's based on actual events — the real James Keene's autobiography was adapted for the series — Black Bird has the machine-tooled craftsmanship of Lehane's fiction. The plot is so airtight that every stray sentence — a comment about hawks in a graveyard, a throwaway conversation about various fluids in the body — becomes crucial a few episodes later. Likewise, the dialogue is so crisp that every prison guard and awkward teenager is graced with eloquence.

    From one perspective, it's disappointing that something as fascinating and messy as Keene's true story has been placed into the immediately recognizable template of serial killer dramas. When Jimmy draws Larry out in jailhouse conversations, it's hard not to think of Clarice Starling talking to Hannibal Lecter. When Detective Miller barks about the screw-ups that could turn a killer loose, one recalls countless fictional detectives doing the exact same thing.

    Still, tightly made crime shows can be incredibly satisfying, and if Black Bird doesn't have many new tricks, at least it excels at hitting the genre's marks. First and foremost, it delivers characters worth the six-hour commitment. As Jimmy, Egerton stirringly transforms from cocky bad boy to soul-shattered witness of true evil. Hauser, meanwhile, injects Hall with the narcissisim of a monster who's convinced he's doing his victims a favor. Their scenes together are gripping chess games, with both characters trying to determine how much they can and should say.

    But the series' most surprising and effective character is Gary Hall. Typically the brother of the villain would only be there to deliver exposition, but as he's forced to confront Larry's crimes, Gary has an awakening about how he wants to live his life. In the final episode, Jake McLaughlin has a lengthy scene with Hauser where Gary tries to force his brother to see himself clearly. He pleads, weeps, and chokes on things he can't say, and for a moment, he shifts the emotional axis of the story. McLaughlin doesn't get enough screen time to let Black Bird shatter any molds, but he contributes greatly to the pleasures of this solidly old-fashioned storytelling.

    Pairs well with

    • Mr. Mercedes (Peacock), another meat and potatoes serial killer series, adapted by Dennis Lehane from Stephen King's novel.
    • Rectify (AMC+), the quiet crime series that almost blew the genre apart thanks to its thoughtful look at what happens in the aftermath of terrible events.
    • How to Get Away With Murder (Netflix), the soapy crime thriller that also masters its genre thanks to high-level writing and acting.

  • Black Bird
    The first two episodes premiere July 8. New episodes Fridays through August 5.
    Created by: Dennis Lehane. Based on the book In With The Devil, by James Keene and Hillel Levin
    Starring: Taron Egerton, Paul Walter Hauser, Greg Kinnear, Ray Liotta, Sepideh Moafi, and Jake McLaughlin.
    Directed by: Michaël Roskam.

    TOPICS: Black Bird, Apple TV+, Dennis Lehane, Greg Kinnear, Jake McLaughlin, Michaël Roskam, Paul Walter Hauser, Ray Liotta, Sepideh Moafi, Taron Egerton