Black Bird turns a stool pigeon into a hero [Apple TV+ recap] ★★★½

black bird, The new Apple TV+ series about an inmate task with cozying up to a suspected serial killer, begins as a blustery and entirely too familiar tale of bad men doing bad things, without much to distract from the cliches.

However, armed with an impressive cast and crew — and one of the last performances by the great Ray Liotta — it eventually slots itself into good procedural habits.

The limited series, based on James Keene’s memoir In With the Devil: A Fallen Hero, a Serial Killer, and a Dangerous Bargain for Redemption and developed by crime novelist Dennis Lehane, premieres Friday on Apple TV+. The first two episodes start off wobbly, but then chart a path toward true-crime greatness.

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Black Bird recap: Season opener

Season 1, episodes 1 and 2: Former football hopeful Jimmy Keene (played by Rocketman star Taron Egerton) is out of the game and into drugs. Once a promising player, he’s been permanently benched and now he’s a small-time dealer who mostly uses old friends to help him move product.

That’s a problem because friends prove unreliable. In fact, one of them clipped a little from one of his latest runs, and Jimmy’s supplier (Lee Tergesen) almost kills both of them. Jimmy unwinds by taking home a waitress (Cecilia Leal), but the Drug Enforcement Administration comes for him the next morning. So there goes his slightly improved mood.

Jimmy’s dad, Big Jim Keene (Ray Liotta), was a cop for many years but also a lowlife in his own way. He comes by to council his son about his upcoming trial — they’re gonna make an example of him. With his mom (Robyn Malcolm) and dad watching, Jimmy pleads guilty on the advice of council, but gets 10 years anyway.

An offer Jimmy can’t refuse

Lauren McCauley (played by Sepideh Moafi, left) and Brian Miller (Greg Kinnear) need a snitch.
Photo: Apple TV+

Seven months later, the agent who arrested him, Lauren McCauley (Sepideh Moafi), and the lawyer who railroaded him, Beaumont (Robert Wisdom), approach Jimmy with an offer. They want him to go to another prison and elicit a confession from a serial killer named Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser).

If Jimmy can get the killer to give him the location of one of his victim’s bodies, he’ll go free. They suspect Larry killed 14 people, but they don’t have proof, despite the best efforts of detective Brian Miller (Greg Kinnear).

Miller caught Hall when the local detectives were getting tired of hearing the local weirdo confess to crimes he didn’t commit for attention. He had dreams, Hall told them, where he killed young women.

Miller knew better than to take all this at face value, so he let Hall talk and talk and talk until he confessed to the murders. Hall’s twin brother Gary (Jake McLaughlin) — who drank most of Larry’s useful chromosomes in the womb — got him a lawyer. The attorney introduced Larry to the idea that he was coerced into testingifying, so now Miller can’t get anything useful out of him anymore.

Their only hope is Jimmy Keene.

Here’s where it started to go sideways

Black Bird Apple TV+ recap: The fantastic Paul Walter Hauser plays accused serial killer Larry Hall.
The fantastic Paul Walter Hauser plays accused serial killer Larry Hall.
Photo: Apple TV+

Black Bird really had me worried for a minute. It starts with bad, indifferently delivered voiceover by Egerton, then shows us a super-old-hat scene of low-life drug runners threatening each other. Then they drop the voiceover, with showrunner Dennis Lehane suddenly coming to his senses that it was a stupid idea.

My attention span was getting its hat and its coat to leave when Greg Kinnear and Paul Walter Hauser showed up. Kinnear usually proves a reliable presence in films. But he’s not so personality-rich that he can save a bad show — unless he and the writing are on the same wavelength.

Kinnear does his best work when playing functions, and they gave him a great one to play here. He’s at home as a guy who knows more than most people in the room, but who also knows he doesn’t know everything. He especially knows when he’s been beaten, because he can’t outsmart the problem ahead of him. Very strong stuff.

And Paul Walter Hauser? That guy is our James Dean. Electrifying. Can’t be beat.

A director with a mixed track record

Michaël R. Roskam is not a terribly distinguished director but he gets out of his own way when the murder plot takes over from the stool pigeon narrative. He directed the pretty good Bullhead and the laughably inauthentic The Drop, in which Tom Hardy got bored the first five minutes playing a Noo Yawkuh and started making up lines and tap dancing and mumbling to make the experience more fun for him while the rest of the cast just tried to get through the shooting day.

So I was trepidatious to see Roskam’s name as director of Black Bird to say the least. But once we got the inexcusably macho nonsense of the first act out of the way, the series settled down and became good. It might become great by the end of the season, provided Egerton shapes up.

… and a lead actor with something to prove

Just as it’s every New York actor’s dream to play a deranged southerner, for some reason every Brit wants to play a lowlife American. Until Black BirdWelshman Egerton mostly appeared in dreadful movies using his own accent, or something close to it (that cockney thing he does in the awful Kingsman movies, for instance). So now it’s time for him to spread his wings and play one of us.

He just can’t help but look like a cocky millionaire. Admittedly, that’s kind of who Jimmy Keene is supposed to be. But that’s just not all that fun to watch. However, by the end of the second episode, Egerton was riding the vibe of the piece and standing out less, which was great.

It remains to be seen if this all coheres, but right now I’m really optimism about Black Bird.

★★★

Watch Blackbird on Apple TV+

The first two episodes of Black Bird premiere July 8 on Apple TV+. New episodes follow every Friday.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.

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