There’s a moment in ‘Black Bird’ where a riot breaks out in a prison and, during the scene, an inmate is stabbed in the neck. The camera doesn’t cut away and nothing is left to the imagination. In fact, it’s one of the bloodiest, most unrelentingly brutal scenes that I’ve seen on Apple TV+, and it was at this moment I knew that this show was going to take the viewer to much darker places than I had originally anticipated.
‘Black Bird’ tells the story of Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton), the son of a highly decorated police officer (Ray Liotta) and former high school football star, who has fallen into a life of crime. Following a raid on his home, he is sentenced to ten years in prison. He is later given a choice by the police who put him behind bars - serve his full sentence with no possibility of parole or transfer to a maximum security prison for the criminally insane to befriend suspected serial killer Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser), obtain a murder confession and find out where the bodies of several young girls are buried. In return, he will earn freedom. He also has to find a way to do all of this before Hall’s upcoming appeal goes through to prevent him being released. On the outside, Detective Brian Miler (Greg Kinnear) and FBI agent Lauren McCauley (Sepideh Moafi) work against the clock to find other ways of definitively proving that Hall is guilty prior to the appeal. The series is inspired by actual events and adapted from the true crime memoir 'In with the Devil', written by James Keene himself, who also serves as an executive producer.
From the first episode, the show begins to dial up the tension and never looks back. It also explores some very dark subject matters and isn’t an easy watch. This isn’t a glossy or sanitised look at prison and the sense of danger and the ever-looming threat of violence hangs heavily over the murky and gritty prison scenes at all times. When those moments of violence do come, they almost feel like relief from the tension, but it’s never a feeling that sticks around very long. Two other shows which came to mind whilst watching ‘Black Bird’ were ‘True Detective’ and ‘Oz’, simply in terms of the dark nature of the plot and the brutal prison violence. This feels like an old school HBO drama in all the best ways and whilst the violence isn’t constant or overused for any shock value, it hits hard when it does happen.
In addition, Larry Hall, despite being behind bars already, is pegged by many who know him as the harmless town weirdo. He’s said to be a nothing but a serial confessor looking for notoriety and not someone capable of murder - even by some local law enforcement. The show cleverly manages to find ways of creating that ever-so-slight nagging feeling of doubt through some fantastic writing and it further adds to the, at times, near unbearable levels of anxiety.
Together with the constant tension and high stakes nature of the plot, it’s the two lead performances that make ‘Black Bird’ so memorable. Taron Egerton is fantastic as the cocky Keene and really shines when the character’s vulnerabilities come to the surface as his situation goes from bad to worse in the maximum security prison. There’s so much more to Jimmy that initially meets the eye and Egerton’s nuanced, layered performance gradually reveals more and more as the story progresses. There are also a couple of flashback scenes that explore his childhood and relationship with his father, which add depth to an already interesting character.
Enough cannot be said about Paul Walter Hauser’s performance here. He is utterly terrifying as Larry Hall and gives one of the most chilling and skin-crawling performances that I’ve ever seen on screen. Everything from his mannerisms and facial expressions to the pitch of his voice and how he often quickly transitions from a goofy oddball to a dead-eyed monster left me very unsettled, yet unable to look away. One scene in particular in which he and Jimmy begin to share stories from their pasts after becoming closer left me chilled me to the bone. If you last saw Hauser as the bumbling and affable Stingray in ‘Cobra Kai’, this is about as far away from that character as you could possibly imagine. Jimmy Keene is someone who has clearly done some pretty bad things in his life, but the show does a great job of making you still root for him, given who he’s trying to bring down and it speaks volumes to just how frightening Hauser’s performance is.
Ray Liotta’s performance as ‘Big Jim’ Keene, his final television role before he sadly passed away in May, is a powerful one that does a great job of exploring the bond between father and son - something that the series touches on quite a bit in contrasting ways. Much like his son, Jim Keene has a clouded past, despite being a highly regarded police officer. Early in the first episode, during a conversation with Jimmy in prison, he tells him that he “never wanted any of this for him” as we get a sense of just how far his son has followed in his footsteps. Liotta commands his scenes at all times and is brilliant during the moments of desperation and worry for his son’s wellbeing. His strong performance brings to life, the panic and helplessness that his character is going through.
The only area in which ‘Black Bird’ slightly falters is its length. At only six episodes, there’s a whole lot to fit in within a short amount of time and as a result, there are a couple of characters and storylines which aren’t explored in as much detail as they could have been. It's a similar issue that I experienced with The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, which also consisted of six episodes. Sepideh Moafi is great as Lauren, but we never find out much about her character outside of the case. Similarly, Greg Kinnear is on top form as the detective who is all-consumed with finding the truth and whilst we do get a small glimpse into his personal life, I wanted a little more and to spend more time with him and Moafi’s character, who are great together. The events that take place within the prison are the show’s main focus, of course, but the plot line following the detectives working the case on the outside and how it relates to what Jimmy is doing in prison is also really interesting. There’s just not enough of it, particularly towards the end, where the culmination of the two plot threads feels a little rushed.
‘Black Bird’ is a lean, nail-bitting six hours of television that ramps up the tension with each passing episode and it’s led by two fantastic performances that should earn the show awards recognition. While a couple of extra episodes would have allowed some of the secondary characters and storylines to develop a little more, I was fully invested right from the start. Parts of the show can be very difficult to watch and the story goes to some pretty dark places, but you’ll simply be too gripped to look away.
'Black Bird' premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday July 8th with the first two episodes, followed by one new episode weekly through August 5th. It can be pre-added to your 'Up Next' queue now.
James has been a fan of Apple for as long as he can remember. He is a film & TV obsessive and has also written for several publications such as BBC Good Food Magazine. He lives in Glasgow, Scotland and can usually be found drinking copious amounts of coffee, watching Apple TV+ and talking about it with anyone who will listen.