Recommended: Black Bird on Apple TV+
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.
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