Crime dramas based on real events are having a pretty big moment right now — and when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. The real-life stories that inspire the series have a powerful, sinister appeal, and the actors involved have the opportunity to explore some extremely dark places through a wide range of compelling, all-too-real characters.
The Apple TV+ series black bird is a great example of just such a project, and elevates an already compelling real-world story with strong performances from leads Taron Egerton and Paul Walter Hauser — the latter of whom makes a strong case for himself come next awards season.
The six-part series features Egerton as James “Jimmy” Keane, a drug dealer who makes a deal with federal prosecutors to commute his 10-year sentence if he can convince his colleague Larry Hall (Hauser) to confess incriminating details about the kidnapping and the murder of several young girls. To do this, he must enter a hellish maximum security prison for the criminally insane and earn Hall’s trust, while avoiding threats from both inmates and corrupt guards and keeping his mission a secret. The series is inspired by Keane’s 2010 autobiographical novel With the Devil: A Fallen Hero, a Serial Killer, and a Dangerous Redemption Deal and was developed by Dennis Lehane (The Tel) for Apple.
In their respective roles, Egerton and Houser give great performances as Keane and Hall, the focus of his dangerous assignment.
Egerton has always been fantastic at playing characters brimming with (and sometimes hiding behind) confidence, regardless of their actual abilities. Keene’s performance, however, demands a little more from Egerton, as Rocket Man and Kingsman the actor has to switch between the different versions of himself that Keane portrays in the series. There’s the image Keane presents to the world, the persona he presents to Hall, and the person he is when he’s alone and allows himself to be vulnerable. It’s a role that requires a lot of nuance and flexibility, and Egerton gives his best in the performance.
As Hall, Houser continues to build his reputation as one of Hollywood’s hidden gems. Whether it elevates the role of supporter in Cruella, starring in a biopic Richard Jewellor portraying a fan-favorite character in Cobra Kai, Houser finds a way to make each role unique and memorable – and his portrayal of Hall is no exception. From his relaxed demeanor and fondness for conversation to the sense of smoldering danger baked into his quiet moments, everything Houser brings to the character enriches the picture of Hall he paints. Given the raw, disturbing subject matter the role demands, it’s not an easy character to empathize with, but Houser disappears into Hall’s sad, eerie skin with terrifying (and impressive) ease.
While the series’ two leads deliver strong enough performances to carry the entire series, black bird has an embarrassment of riches in its supporting cast as well.
In one of his last roles before his death earlier this year, Ray Liotta (Good boys) plays Keane’s father “Big Jim” Keane, a retired police officer with unconditional love for his son – despite all his faults. It’s a softer, more emotional performance for Liotta than we’re used to, but it’s great to see the celebrated actor explore this kind of role.
Liotta is joined in the supporting cast by Sepide Moafi (The couple) and Greg Kinnear (How much) as two main investigators—federal and local, respectively—working to put Hall behind bars. Moafee makes the most of her screen time with an excellent performance as the FBI agent who recruits Keane and manages to consistently counter Keane’s confidence with a cold sense of certainty about the role she plays in ensuring justice. On the other hand, Kinnear brings relative humanity to his role as the local investigator who doggedly pursues Hall. His character is more than just a typical small-town cop with good instincts, and he feels like a fully fleshed-out person rather than a character – or worse, a caricature – giving the investigative narrative a sense of real humanity.
Apart from the impressive cast and their performances, black bird also benefits from great stride feel.
While many limited series – especially crime dramas – seem content to tread water for a few episodes and pad the story with indulgent plot threads that are unnecessary or, at worst, distract from the main narrative, black bird is a refreshingly effective presentation of Keane’s saga. While the show jumps back and forth in time to introduce certain events in the case and the lives of everyone involved, the arcs in these segments never feel detached from the psychological cat-and-mouse game played out in the prison. Every single episode of black bird it packs a punch, which is something that can’t be said for most of the show’s genre.
While Keane’s story isn’t particularly unique and compelling in its own right, black bird is elevated by the strong performances of the cast and the expertly crafted screenplay. These elements set it apart in a crowded genre and deliver a thoroughly satisfying—and often unsettling—saga played out in six strong parts.
The first two episodes of black bird premieres Friday, July 8 on Apple TV+. New episodes will premiere every week on Fridays.