AppleTV+’s newest drama puts strong acting and writing towards another story of young women victims and the people who fight for them.
When Black Bird opens with its Mogwai-penned and performed score and its series of voyeuristic but vague imagery, one will likely have an idea what kind of show they’re in for. And they will probably be correct.
After the first fifteen minutes, the series takes shape, and viewers will quickly find themselves on familiar ground. Tales of dead young girls, the monsters who took them, and the people who try to get them justice.
Yes, it is based on a true story as told in James Keene and Hillel Levin’s book Black Bird: One Man’s Freedom Hides in Another Man’s Darkness. And yes, women and girls are uniquely targeted and victimized physically and sexually by men. So this reflects reality. Generally, showrunner Dennis Lehane and his team ensure it does so in a non-sensationalist—although often deeply unpleasant—way. So there isn’t anything “wrong” about it. And yet…at what point can we declare we’ve had our fill of these kinds of stories? Or perhaps we can take a break from them for a time? Sadly, Black Bird doesn’t seem interested in those questions, never mind willing to provide answers.
[Black Bird] feels overstuffed and distracted at times.
The first episode’s first act rapidly sets the table. Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton) is a high school football star turned polished, successful drug dealer. Despite seemingly having it all on rails, the DEA still catches up with him. One morning they burthst in as he blends himself some green juice, shirtless. Nearby, his previous evening’s one-night stand still sleeps soundly on the couch. Heeding his formerly crooked but now retired cop father James Sr (Ray Liotta) Jimmy takes a plea deal. Unfortunately, it turns out not to be five years with a chance to get out early for good behavior. Instead it’s ten years, no possibility of parole. Before long, though, the DA that sent him away (Robert Wisdom) and Agent Lauren McCauley (Sepideh Moafi) arrive with a proposition. They’ll commute Jimmy’s sentence if he helps get Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser) to reveal where he buried his victims.
The series quickly asserts itself as a showcase for solid writing and acting. Lehane and his fellow writers have a good feel for dialogue that reads as realistic but still has a bit more zing than your day-to-day conversations. Egerton gets Keene’s mix of superficial charisma overlaying a stew of long-simmering confusion and resentments dating back to his childhood. Hauser gives the serial killer a sleepy air and slightly childish disposition that makes his later revelations to Keene all the more stomach-churning. The duo’s interactions feel like Egerton is almost toying with the seemingly much less intelligent, much less worldly Hauser until the moments the killer reminds the drug dealer which of them is the true predator.
Black Bird boasts strong supporting players as well. In one of his final roles, Liotta turns in a performance that gains depth and a bittersweet melancholy over time. Likewise, Greg Kinnear as Brian Miller, the cop who first put Hall away, quietly finds dimension in what could have been a fairly thin role of the dogged smalltown lawman. He plays especially well with and off Moafi as the two look for another way to keep Hall in jail.
The editing is also worth noting. While Egerton strides towards the camera—shoulders back, impressive muscles filling the screen—entirely too often, the show’s decision to cut these scenes on the beat with some of the 90’s stranger hits like “Battle Flag” by Lo-Fidelity All-Stars gives the whole thing an itchy paranoid sheen.
But the show also feels overstuffed and distracted at times. Subplots involving a mob boss who takes a shine to Jimmy and a CO who attempts to blackmail the drug dealer don’t add much by way of stakes and sometimes even release the tension that Lehane and his fellow writers have built well. The confidence man trying to fool a murderer into outing himself is so much more compelling. In a longer series, perhaps the idea that Jimmy’s mission might get exposed to inmates intolerant of any variety of snitching could have borne fruit. Instead, in this tight a space, it ends up an underdeveloped and frustrating excursion.
Finally, there’s the show’s attempts to put Jimmy’s history of sublimated misogyny, likely stemming from his unresolved issues with his adulterous mother, as expressed by him having meaningless sex with a parade of women alongside Hall’s crimes. His is a history of very active misogyny expressed by kidnapping, sexually assaulting, and murdering teenage girls because he felt women didn’t love him as he deserved. One is the sort of thing that gets in the way of that person finding healthy long-term relationships and addressed with therapy. The other is a series of horrifying crimes that end the lives of human beings. The show can never connect the dots because those dots exist in different continents of human behavior.
For one episode, the series feels genuinely about the victims, not the killers, snitches, and cops working the case.
At other times, Black Bird will do something like it does in the penultimate episode. Without ignoring the plot, the installment repeatedly leaves the prison. In those moments it lets the final victim, Jessica Roach (Laney Stiebing), speak for herself. It’s nothing groundbreaking, just the memories a teenage girl would share if you asked her about her favorite moments from this summer. However, that simplicity gives it a weight that is too often lacking. For one episode, the series feels genuinely about the victims, not the killers, snitches, and cops working the case.
It’s a shame that, with the talent assembled, Black Bird doesn’t do that more. Clearly, the skill was there, but sadly, it too often chased the tropes instead.
Black Bird heads behind bars July 8th on AppleTV+.