Series Developed by Dennis Lehane.
Apple TV+ is starting to pick up steam as a serious streamer with several fantastic shows. Black Bird, from award-winning novelist and screenwriter Dennis Lehane, is one of its latest solid series. Unfortunately, since Apple TV+ is yet to have a massive subscriber count, shows like it, For All Mankind, Severance, Shining Girls, and so on and so forth will probably struggle to find an enormous audience. Black Bird should be an easy sell for many people in this day and age where true crime adaptations are all the rage. The mini-series is based on James Keene and Hillel Levin’s autobiographical novel In With The Devil: A Fallen Hero, a Serial Killer, and a Dangerous Bargain for Redemption.
The title of the said autobiographical novel is a simple summation of the show, but if you need a little bit more, then look no further. It follows James “Jimmy” Keene (played by Taron Egerton), a charismatic and cocky drug dealer and the son of a former police officer (played by Ray Liotta, in one of his final screen performances), who took a plea deal thinking he’d be sentenced to five years, but, when he was also charged with possession of a lot of illegal firearms, he ended up being sentenced to ten years without parole. Eventually, he is offered an opportunity for a commuted sentence. In return, federal authorities need him to have himself transferred to a maximum security prison where he must befriend and extract new evidence from a potential psychopathic serial killer, Larry Hall (played by Paul Walter Hauser). This show tells the story of Jimmy’s attempts to get Larry Hall to open up about his crimes before it’s too late.
On the surface, this may sound like a relatively simple prison show. One criminal has to connect with another criminal to get out. But the fact that this is inspired by a true story makes it feel more significant than a simple surface-level view of the show may reveal. Now, admittedly, there are some things about this show that feel relatively generic and predictable, but it succeeds through its strong and sometimes quite memorable performances and Dennis Lehane’s gripping dialogue.
The show is structured with the a-plot centering around Jimmy’s time in prison and the b-plot being about the investigation into the Larry Hall crimes on the outside of the prison. One works far better than the other. The b-plot has some notable strong performers in Greg Kinnear and Sepideh Moafi, who is particularly good, and the outside investigation is most interesting in the first two episodes (truthfully, the first two episodes mostly deal with set-up for the prison scenes) whereas it becomes less and less rewarding as the show goes on. They make some decent discoveries and there is a great conversation between the detectives and Larry’s brother, but I also came away from the limited series thinking that it could’ve been — and maybe should’ve been — a prison epic film instead, with which much of the b-plot probably would be left on the cutting room floor.
The a-plot works much better. Taron Egerton is excellent as Jimmy, who has to charm his way into a fake friendship in which he has to disguise exactly how difficult it is for him to stomach what Larry Hall has to say. Egerton does a good job of subtly signaling how a laugh is put on or how a comment from Hall pains him. That said, there are scenes with the prison gangs and the prison guards that felt relatively trite. Paul Walter Hauser is also very good as Larry Hall. Although the high-pitched voice that he puts on to play the character can sometimes be slightly comical, Hauser has some really strong moments in which he shows feverish excitement and disappointment and makes disturbing descriptions. I must also mention Ray Liotta, a fantastic actor who passed away this year. This will be remembered as one of Liotta’s final performances, and I think he is really good in the show in spite of his limited screen time. He plays Jimmy’s father who partly blames himself for Jimmy’s sentence while he also struggles with illness. This struggle is really hard to watch, and his final scene in the show genuinely moved me to tears.
I think fans of shows like Mindhunter, who will probably be interested in the true crime aspect of the show (and how the main character basically has to convince a potential serial killer into revealing his actions), will enjoy the show, but so should fans of a show like The Night Of because of the prison dynamics. It is true that there are a lot of shows and films like this one, but I would definitely recommend it to those who are particularly interested in true crime adaptations. It’s solid!
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.