Better Late Than Never: Black Bird
I knew there was a possibility when the fall season began that I was going to eventually end up watching Apple TV’s limited series Black Bird. I thought I might end up doing it out of sentiment considering that it features one of the final performances of the incredible character actor Ray Liotta. Then this past month, the limited series began to make inroad in the major awards circuits. It earned multiple nominations from the Critic Choice Awards for Liotta and Paul Walter Hauser. Then it received nominations from the Golden Globes for Hauser, lead actor Taron Egerton and for Best Limited Series. Now that it looks like a major contender for next year’s Emmys, I figured now was the time to start watching it.
Had I been aware at the time that the showrunner was Dennis Lehane, one of my favorite mystery writers of all time and a major force in both Peak TV and films, I might have thrown caution to the wind and started watching in August when it first premiered. In hindsight, I’m glad I waited. I have spent much of 2022 engaged in television’s somewhat more light-hearted affairs, and I’m not sure I would have wanted to go into the darkest levels of true crime, no matter how well written at that point of the year. Now I am prepared to go into the heart of darkness.
The series is based off the memoirs of Jimmy Keene (Egerton) a former high school athlete in Chicago, who when we first meet him has essentially become a drug-dealer and arms runner for a very disconnected mobster. (Good to see Lee Tergesen working). One night, after getting laid, he is busted by the FBI and Agent McCauley, who he’s clearly on a first name basis with. Facing heavy charges, he is convinced by his father (Liotta) a retired corrupt cop to take a plea deal for five years. The DA double crosses him at the sentencing and puts him in for ten.
Several months later, Jimmy is approached by McCauley and the DA (veteran character actor Robert Wisdom). The two make him an offer he’d very much like to refuse: go to a maximum security prison and convince a man they believe is guilty of at least thirteen murders of young girls to confess the locations of the bodies before his appeal is handled. Jimmy very much wants to tell them where to put their deal, but McCauley leaves him the file.
Much of the first two episodes involves the initial investigation into the murder of the first girl. The investigation is handled by Chief Inspector Brian Miller (Greg Kinnear doing his best work in years). From the start, it becomes clear that Miller is an average detective but is clearly the only police man who has the right ideas and is thinking clearly. Slowly he latches on to the idea of a suspect, a janitor named Larry Hall (Hauser). When he goes to town, it becomes clear how badly the process has been mishandled: a local detective is sure he’s on the wrong track. Detectives from Illinois investigating another murder have arrested another suspect and think Larry is a waste of time, even though he confessed to a couple of murders before. Though admittedly the moment we see Hall it’s hard to imagine anyone thinking of him as ‘harmless’.
Hauser’s work is clearly the master class everyone thinks it is. Enormous in size with bushy sideburn, he affects a tone so soft spoken and a demeanor so seemingly disconnected from reality then when he tells the detectives he dreams about killing women, you almost believe he’s telling the truth. The local detectives are fooled and are prepared to arrest someone else for the crime. Miller goes to McCauley and Beaumont and they end up getting Hall in a room alone. In a matter of minutes, he confesses to a completely different murder than they want and they get him to sign a confession for it. Not long after, they search his home and find no corroborating evidence and the fact that his twin brother Gary is utterly convinced that his brother is innocent — mainly because he thinks he’s an idiot.
What the FBI and the AG are trying to do with Jimmy is little more than a Hail Mary. (When McCauley calls Miller to tell him about, he dismisses her: “What you’re doing isn’t police work. It’s desperation.”) If Jimmy was more savvy, he might have caught up on the fact that he goes from being ‘auditioned’ to recruited in a matter of days, but he’s got his own concerns. Not only can he not stand being in prison his father has suffered a massive stroke and may not have much time left. In a critical decision, his father does not learn about Jimmy taking the deal until his son has already been transferred. Jimmy is clearly not doing this out of the goodness of his heart, but that’s okay because we don’t entirely trust the law enforcement people involved. (I suspect that he may have been given this harsher sentence by the AG in order to force him into this position. I don’t know if I’ll be proven correct.)
There was a great deal of obsession and controversy about Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series on Jeffrey Dahmer, which has also received several nominations from the Golden Globes. I have no interest in watching the former and am primarily drawn to Black Bird because so much of its focus is on Jimmy and not Hall, at least in the first two episodes. Egerton, known for playing the dapper young lead in Kingsman and for his Golden Globe winning role as Elton John, is practically unrecognizable as Keene. It’s not just that his naturally classy demeanor is diminished in prison clothes or his American accent, it’s his perfect balance of cockiness in the outside world and the fear and claustrophobia that prison has done to him. When he is being transferred to the maximum security prison, he’s cocky and joking on the plane ride there and even in the drive up to the doors — and at last minute gets a serious case of stage fright that is by far the most human we’ve seen him throughout the series. We don’t really like Jimmy, but when we see him in his new home, we feel something close to sympathy as he and the audience realize just how over his head he is.
The rest of the performances are spot on all the way down. Hauser’s work is, as I mentioned, quietly disturbing and fascinating. Even knowing what he’s done, I’m still having a great deal of trouble believing Larry’s a killer, particularly in a marvelous scene near the end of the second episode where he discusses almost amicably the condition of a boiler with a guard. Save for the uniforms both are wearing, their attitudes are such that this could be a typical workplace conversation and that’s because it almost seems like the guard, who spends his days among the scum of the earth and who has to know why Hall is there, as if he is harmless. Liotta is very good in the few scenes he has, and we’re picking up on a very troubled relationship between father and son, one that Liotta keeps saying is understood. Unnoticed by awards so far has been the work of Kinnear, whose everyman quality and dogged pursuit of justice almost seems out of place in Peak TV. I hope they find a way to nominate him the same way that Hauser and Liotta are likely to earn nominations.
I’m still not completely certain whether Black Bird deserves to be ranked among the best limited series of the year. It has something of a slow pace which doesn’t seem fitting for a series that only has six episodes. Then again, considering that there is now clock for the investigation the pace will accelerate. I have an idea how the series ends — this is after all based on a nonfiction best seller written by James Keene, which makes it highly unlikely he’ll be in a body bag by the end. And I have faith Lehane, who spent so many years under the tutelage of David Simon at HBO knows exactly how to bring the best stories to conclusion. I spent a lot of time and energy this year writing articles about how so many series about serial killers are not that interesting or get it wrong in the long run. The fact that Black Bird is spending as much time with the man trying to get answers — and making it just as clear that no one at any stage in this has their hands entirely clean — makes me think that this might be one of the exceptions to the rule.
My score: 4.25 stars.