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It would appear easy enough to lose “Black Bird” in the shuffle of true-crime prestige TV series. It’s got the usual mix of name talent both young-ish (“Rocketman” and “Kingsman” star Taran Egerton; “Richard Jewell” star Paul Walter Hauser) and established (Greg Kinnear; the late Ray Liotta); it’s got real-life mystery that’s compelling but not wildly unpredictable; it’s even got a forgettable title that doesn’t reveal its connection to the story at hand until late in the series. So it’s a wonderful surprise to realize so quickly that this six-episode Apple TV+ series is more than the sum of its familiar parts: It’s an unexpectedly exacting and quietly gripping series of interlocking character studies.
The premise evokes both “The Departed” and “Zodiac.” In one storyline, cocky and charming drug dealer Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton) is nabbed and unexpectedly sentenced to a decade in prison, despite a plea bargain that he thought would get him out in a few years. In another, chief investigator Brian Miller (Greg Kinnear) circles Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser), suspecting him of serially murdering young women in the Midwest. Larry is eventually incarcerated, but seems to be on the verge of freedom thanks to what his defense describes as a coerced confession. These unrelated cases are drawn together when FBI agent Lauren McCauley (Sepideh Moafi) makes Jimmy a dangerous but tempting offer: Transfer to a maximum-security prison, befriend Larry, and extract more concrete information about his crimes (even his confession only covers a single murder among several). Larry will stay in jail, and Jimmy’s sentence will be commuted. In the meantime, Miller and McCauley continue to dig into Larry’s past.
It’s their slow-burn, detail-oriented policework that recalls David Fincher’s masterpiece “Zodiac,” particularly the sections of that film that focus on John Carroll Lynch’s creepy, insinuating Arthur Leigh Allen. Larry Hall’s potential guilt never feels quite so skin-crawlingly ambiguous, but the effect is still unsettling; in a relatively short period, Hauser has become a master at playing men who seemingly broadcast their culpability so consistently that they create a haze of doubt around their true motivations. Miller is flabbergasted to learn that local police elicited an earlier confession from Larry, only to later dismiss him as a serial confessor—a weirdo seeking attention. The audience is somehow made to both share Miller’s disbelief and understand the impulse to dismiss Larry as a sicko fabricator. As played by Hauser, there is something slippery and evasive about this odd, slow-speaking man who keeps to himself in prison, and knows a lot about chemical cleaners.
Even in his relative stillness, Hauser has the showiest role—a suffocated, whispery whine of a voice; sudden swings from pitiable outcast to hateful sociopath; eye-catching muttonchops—but this isn’t only a showcase for him. Every performance in this compact ensemble hits its mark, with multiple actors notching career-best work. Egerton doesn’t shed his cocksure “Kingsmen” persona so much as weigh it down with psychological baggage and the prison walls close in on him. His combination of attitude and raw nerves is what brings to mind “The Departed”—specifically, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character—and despite the show roughing up his slickness, he emerges looking more like a capable star than ever.
Kinnear, too, feels like something of a revelation; he’s been good in the past, but here he has a steadiness that makes him a perfect investigative anchor, especially in his scenes with the vibrant Moafi. And the late Liotta is touching as Jimmy’s caring but far-from-perfect father, never overplaying the scenes where we realize what a screw-up he is.
“Black Bird” is not jam-packed with thrill-ride incident. Indeed, as the show increases pressure on Jimmy, it also takes the time to sit with several long conversations where he must carefully attempt to ingratiate himself to the sometimes-skittish, sometimes-inscrutable Larry. Novelist Dennis Lehane, who adapted the material from a memoir, patiently explores these characters without sacrificing tension or simplifying their motivations. The show would rather use a handful of starkly illustrative flashbacks than pad the running time to hammer home points about Jimmy and Larry’s respective backstories. The writing and the direction both have an unfussy quality that brings to mind the better work of director Clint Eastwood (who adapted Lehane’s novel “Mystic River”).
Like some Eastwood films, that reluctance to elaborate occasionally threatens to leave “Black Bird” looking a little thin from certain angles—risking that common true-crime peril of essentially saying, “here is some bad stuff that happened” (or turning horrific crimes into a learning experience for the protagonist). But the show stays so close to its characters that it never feels like it’s hitting true-story bullet points. Despite some viscerally disturbing sequences, including a horrifying prison riot, “Black Bird” is at its most haunting in dialogue scenes, as regrets and fears are laid bare. For a show that is, at least some degree, about criminal profiling, full catharsis remains fascinatingly elusive.
“Black Bird” premieres with its first two episodes on Apple TV+ on Friday, July 8, followed by new episodes weekly.