Apple TV+ continues their excellent 2022 after the success of “Severance,” “Slow Horses,” "Pachinko," and "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey" with one of the best limited series of the year to date. The riveting “Black Bird” sustains six hours of tension in its telling of a remarkable true story about a convict who was convinced to get closer to a serial killer to make sure he stayed behind bars. A story told both in prison and with the investigators on the outside, this is a smart, thrilling piece of television, heavily elevated by the writing of the great Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River,” “Shutter Island,” “Gone Baby Gone”). “Rocket Man” star Taron Egerton flexes his acting muscles in a way he’s never been allowed to before, Ray Liotta gives a moving final performance, and Greg Kinnear does his best work in years in a show that transcends the true crime genre to become a character study of a man who is forced to befriend pure evil to ensure it doesn’t escape.
Lehane adapts the nonfiction book In With the Devil: A Fallen Hero, A Serial Killer, and a Dangerous Bargain for Redemption by James Keene, who is played here by Egerton. A petty criminal, Keene is busted with enough drugs and guns in his possession to get him ten years behind bars, a sentence that likely means he won’t see the final days of his sick father, a former cop known as Big Jim (Liotta). When a detective named Lauren McCauley (an excellent Sepideh Moafi) comes to him with a proposal, he listens. It’s an incredibly dangerous idea that will take Keene from a minimum-security holding facility to maximum-security facility for the criminally insane, where he will be surrounded by murderers and career sociopaths. But it will not only lead to Keene’s release but potentially save lives.
McCauley is working with another detective named Brian Miller (Kinnear) on the case of an alleged serial killer named Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser). They've got him for now, but Hall has a pending appeal that looks like it might be successful, so they need more. Hall has been the suspect in multiple murders across the Midwest, but he’s one of those guys who never tells the same story twice. His twin brother Gary (a phenomenal Jake McLaughlin) and other detectives think that Hall is just a broken storyteller, one of those guys who confesses to things he didn’t do. Miller thinks he’s a true monster who is playing games, and that Hall did commit these horrible rapes and murders. As he investigates recent disappearances that could be Hall’s crimes, Jimmy Keene is moved to a cell near the potential monster, left in an incredibly dangerous situation wherein hardly anybody in the prison knows why he’s there. When he’s not dodging a corrupt guard or navigating the convict power structure, Keene has to slowly get Hall to open up, knowing what he finds inside will be absolutely horrific.
Lehane’s dialogue is sharp from the first scene to the last of the six-episode “Black Bird,” and the entire ensemble comes to life through his words. Egerton finds the perfect balance between grit and vulnerability. He’s just an opportunist criminal, not someone who wants to discuss the rape and murder of children. Egerton captures the emotional stakes of having to listen to a monster in ways that recall Netflix’s excellent “Mindhunter,” which also seems like an influence on the procedural stuff that goes down with McCauley & Miller. Kinnear has a flinty intellectualism that fits the character perfectly, someone who pushes a little harder than the cops who seem to be too willing to believe that Hall is a serial confessor. Hauser is a bit more of a mixed bag. Likely true to the real guy, he plays Hall with a high-pitched affect that can sometimes be like a crutch or even a distraction. He’s better when he’s not leaning into the broadness of Hall’s physicality and vocal tics, particularly in the fifth episode, which is nearly a two-hander between Hauser and Egerton. Finally, there’s the heartbreaking work from Liotta, who was actually ill on set. He imbues his concerned, dying father with a truth that serves as an emotional backdrop for everything that happens on the show.
Another rewarding thing about “Black Bird” is how it uses its six-episode space. We’re in an era of the limited series in which most shows aren’t the best length, too often structured like a film script stretched to meet a mini-series form. But “Black Bird” uses its time to get under your skin. Keene knows he can’t just go into prison and start just asking questions of Hall, who would suspect that his pending appeal could be sabotaged. He has to befriend him over days, and the structure of “Black Bird” allows that slow burn to be genuine, as accompanied by a great score by Mogwai. It also helps greatly that Egerton is always in the moment, conveying Keene’s mental state through a nervous glance or gritted jaw. It’s a great performance.
Its release in the era of a national obsession with true crime could lead people to dismiss “Black Bird,” but this show is worth your time even if you don’t usually buy into the genre. It reminded me more of rich, character-driven material like “The Night Of” than so many of the “ripped from the headlines” mini-series of late. It has the weight of some of Lehane’s best fiction, even though it’s all so disturbingly true.
Premieres with two episodes on Apple TV+ today and then one a week. Whole series screened for review.
Taron Egerton as Jimmy Keene
Ray Liotta as Big Jim Keene
Paul Walter Hauser as Larry Hall
Greg Kinnear as Brian Miller
Sepideh Moafi as Lauren McCauley
Robert Diago DoQui as Sheriff Hartshorne