It tends to happen moments into a TV programme: you know, deep within your body, that the drama you’re watching is good. Sometimes it happens in seconds, doesn’t it? The delivery of one actor; the music they play over the credits. The sensation is both exciting and calming. Suddenly the next six hours of your life aren’t going to be wasted. This is actually good, you realise. This programme has taste.
This is exactly what happens with Black Bird, the new Apple TV+ drama with an outlandishly mad but true premise. It stars Taron Egerton as Jimmy Keene, a former American footballer who in 1996 was sent to prison for dealing cocaine and possessing a number of massive guns. Keene is approached by the FBI, who say that he can reduce his ten-year sentence by transferring to a prison for the criminally insane, in an attempt to elicit a confession from suspected serial killer Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser).
Everyone in the show is sublime: as wily FBI agent Lauren McCauley, Sepideh Moafi holds her own in face-offs opposite Egerton’s Jimmy; Egerton, who looks as though he probably enjoyed getting into the phenomenal shape required for the part, is absolutely sublime as a man terrified of missing his chance and spending forever in a hell-hole of violent psychopaths; Greg Kinnear never looks like he’s acting as he brings to life Brian Miller, the policeman trying to bring Hall down; and, in his last TV role, Ray Liotta gives a moving portrayal of Jimmy’s father Big Jim Keene, a man in rapidly deteriorating health. The scenes between he and Robyn Malcolm, who plays his wife Sammy, are particularly touching, and it is a blessing that Liotta was given such great material with which to end his career.
Perhaps most of all, however, this is a showcase for Hauser’s skills in the shoes of Hall, a serial killer who murdered and raped young girls. With his slow, high-pitched delivery and occasional bursts of mania, Hauser is chilling; impossible to take your eyes off. “I’m not a liar, I’m a raconteur,” he says, in one of many deluded moments. Mercifully we never see him interact with any of his victims, because the testimony that Keene and the authorities tease out of him is haunting enough.
Formidably strong writing makes the cast’s job a lot easier. Dennis Lehane’s dialogue isn’t ostentatious, favouring a truly believable realism because of the truth of the source material. There are a number of lines, however, that stand out. Jessica Roach, the victim of Hall’s to whom the most screen time is devoted, says, as though narrating her life from beyond the grave, “You can die. But you can’t un-live.” It is a small moment of triumph over a man who selfishly shattered the lives of so many.
So yes, it is a gorgeous feeling, knowing that you are watching a show presided over by so many talented people. Given the nature of the real crimes that Hall committed, it is a relief that a dramatisation of his case has been so expertly handled.
‘Black Bird’ is available on Apple TV+ now