Like so much of Dennis Lehane’s writing, “Black Bird” is a stealthy piece of storytelling — at first appearing like a simple crow, nested comfortably on the power line next to a dozen others like it, before spreading its wings and revealing a plumage streaked with shades of gray. For decades now, the novelist and screenwriter has married shrewd sociological observations with popular genre fare. His Kenzie/Gennaro series, peaking with “Gone Baby Gone” and its impossible question of how to best care for at-risk children, is stacked with similar quandaries rooted in morality, responsibility, and the public good. This perspective felt right at home on “The Wire,” which Lehane joined in Seasons 3 and 4, before “Boardwalk Empire,” “Mr. Mercedes,” and “The Outsider,” among other uncredited TV jobs, film scripts, and a steady output of new books.
“Black Bird,” his first series as showrunner and developer, alludes to its complementary components from the very start. “We’ve all heard that thing about a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa and, months later, there’s a hurricane in Miami. If you haven’t, look it up. It means things you don’t think are connected, actually are.” That’s Jimmy Keene, played by a beefed-up Taron Egerton, providing voice-over narration as a teenage girl pedals down a quiet gravel road surrounded by cornfields. “I never knew this girl,” Jimmy says. “Never met her.”
It doesn’t take a detective to discern the awful fate awaiting this young woman. The dead girl trope infiltrates good and bad crime dramas alike, with plenty in the genre using each tragic, often brutal end as a starting point for a man’s story. And “Black Bird” is Jimmy’s story. After the doomed cyclist winds on down the road, Jimmy’s punishment takes center stage. A 10-year prison sentence for trafficking cocaine and housing illegal firearms. A cocky smirk on his face when he’s arrested that vanishes as soon as he’s behind bars. An open-and-shut case — until, months later, when Jimmy’s approached with a deal: A serial killer is about to walk free on appeal. If Jimmy can extract new evidence from him, then Jimmy can get out instead. He’s just got to move from his minimum security prison to a maximum security prison, stay off everyone’s radar, and befriend a psychopath.
Based on the real James Keene’s 2010 autobiography, “In With the Devil: A Fallen Hero, a Serial Killer, and a Dangerous Bargain for Redemption,” “Black Bird” works quite well as a tense, cat-and-mouse thriller. That it’s a true story adds extra pop to the many dialogue scenes, where Jimmy and Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser) share opinions, family histories, and plenty of locker-room talk. Getting to know Larry — who’s presented as either a “harmless” local dummy, too slow and goofy to be a threat to anyone, or a twisted killer, hiding a sea of anger behind his Civil War era burnsides — is unsettling, no matter which side of the line he seems to fall.
But “Black Bird” is not built strictly as a mystery or even a redemption story. Jimmy may be the “hero,” but he’s on the hook for more than his crimes, and the young girls’ deaths aren’t a path to his salvation, so much as an unwanted, unexpected responsibility he must learn to accept. Like “Mindhunter” before it, Lehane’s drama uses its suspected serial killer as a mirror for Jimmy, one that grows clearer and more distressing with each passing conversation. These two men may be more alike than their crimes imply or Jimmy wants. But by the end, it’s clear such similarities aren’t limited to people locked in jail cells.
Told briskly but with welcome diversions over six hourlong episodes, “Black Bird” also studies Larry from the outside. Ray Liotta, who passed away in May at the age of 67, is perfect as Jimmy’s sick, guilt-stricken father, “Big Jim” Keene, who visits as often as he can. The retired cop tells his son early on that this wasn’t the life he wanted for him, but rather than take that sentiment in a harshly critical direction — embarrassed that his little boy would become a drug dealer — Liotta wears it with shame. He blames himself. He brings in all of Jimmy’s pain and worry, letting it eat him up as he sits in the prison parking lot, staring helplessly, fearfully, at the imposing walls. Liotta crafts a fragile figure where a ferocious one once stood, making it easy to see both sides of Big Jim at once: the hero cop and the penitent father.
Sepideh Moafi (“The Deuce”) plays FBI Agent Lauren McCauley, a slick, no-bullshit type who’s there when Jimmy gets pinched and helps convince him to take his shot talking to Larry. Soon, she’s partnered with Greg Kinnear’s local sheriff, Brian Miller, trying to scrounge up further proof of Larry’s alleged attacks. Their continuing investigation creates a familiar rhythm the show can be a little too eager to lean on, but Lehane still subverts the traditional TV detective genre by illustrating law & order’s systemic limits. (Mainly in an anticlimax for the ages.)
Even with a classic partner dynamic and Big Jim’s soft heart, “Black Bird” rests much of its success on the central two-hander. Egerton shapes his former high school football star as believably charismatic without pushing beyond Regular Joe territory. Part of the reason Jimmy is chosen to get information out of Larry is because of his ability to cozy up to just about anyone; he even thinks he can charm McCauley for a few very funny seconds. But while his measured strut and macho posturing is admirably fine-tuned to each situation, it’s the varying levels of restraint Egerton shows in what’s meant to be casual male chatter that makes Jimmy come alive.
As their relationship forms, solidifies, and deepens, Larry reveals more and more to Jimmy, which is part of the plan — Jimmy needs to get him talking about his darkest secrets to land a confession. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to sit there and hear it, let alone play along like guys share these kind of gut-churning comments all the time. Watching Jimmy squirm, trying to keep a straight face, makes for telling drama. But there are other moments when their banter is easy and free-flowing; when Jimmy doesn’t have to try that hard, and then suddenly, they land somewhere Jimmy doesn’t expect. Often, more is divulged in what’s repressed than what’s said, which helps hold focus as the two keep talking. Lehane’s dialogue is excellent, his two primary stars hit each note, and all together, they make each effusive stretch really sing.
About halfway through “Black Bird,” an episode gives its narration over to one of the victims. She talks about her life (in more voiceover), her valued time on Earth, and the joy she experienced while here. What could be a tear-jerking reach instead serves another vital dual purpose: Her narration builds to a possible break in the case, grounding the choice within events of this hour. But it also serves as a necessary shift in perspective: out of the masculine prison, out of Larry’s misogynistic head, and out of Jimmy’s all-too-accepting mindset. It reminds viewers that life doesn’t have to be one way just because it’s the standard. It harkens back to a simple question McCauley asks Jimmy early on that he struggles to answer: “What do you like about women?”
If Jimmy wants out, he’ll have to do what the prison system so often fails to accomplish: admit his faults and reform his behavior. First, though, he has to lean further into the darkness he didn’t know was already part of him. “Black Bird” asks us to do the same. Maybe then, we can see a better world, too.
“Black Bird” premieres Friday, July 8 on Apple TV+. New episodes will be released weekly.